Character Development Courtesy of World Building

Character Development Courtesy of World Building
June 9, 2017 No Comments » For Authors, Writing Advice Stacy Overby

Have you ever stopped to think about how environment affects development? In psychology, one theory examining the interaction between development and environment is Ecological Systems Theory by Urie Bronfenbrenner. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what does this have to do with writing and character development, but trust me a little. It does. Let’s take a look.


This theory has the individual at the center of a target. There are things about us that just are and have nothing to do with the environment. The same thing holds true for your characters. Perhaps the character is stubborn, or has a good sense of humor, or something else like this. There may be environmental things that influence this, but the characteristics re part of the character’s make-up. The characteristics found here are important because they serve as a foundation to who the character is. Keep following along here at Our Write Side for more great ideas and advice on how to develop this level with your characters.


The next circle out is the microsystem. This is the immediate group of people who are closest to the person. For us, these people include family, close friends, and people in our work/school environment with whom we are close and have frequent contact. When we are writing, these are the people you’ve surrounded your character with—again people like family and close friends. They will have the most significant effect on your character’s life. Your character is likely to turn to one or more of these people in times of stress or trouble, be willing to do the most for, and generally care about the most in the character’s life. These people will be characters we want to flesh out—maybe not to the level of our main characters, but they deserve a fair amount of our attention.


Moving out to the next circle in the target is the exosystem. This includes extended family, acquaintances, and the people connected to the individuals in the microsystem. It is not unusual to find that the individual at the center of the system never has direct contact with these people. For example, for children in real life, this would include people like parents’ co-workers, school board members, and extended family. Yet, they influence the individual through how they affect people in the microsystem. In fiction, the people at this level would be more minor bit players in the story likely playing similar roles. They are important as motivations and reasons for the central characters to think, act, and feel in the ways they do.


On to the largest circle in this theory. The macrosystem is most closely related to world building. This includes systems of government, culture, religion, social conditions, history, and such. These, as we all understand, affect behaviors of individuals. Over time, the ongoing impact will influence the course of an individual person’s development. In fiction writing, we do the same thing to our characters. By sketching out how the world our character inhabits works, it will tell us about the people around our character and our character him/herself.

Now do you see how character development, in part, comes courtesy of the world building we do as authors? It’s just like a whirlpool. It all spirals down into the center where the most happens. Just remember my most basic rule of thumb—treat your characters as if they are people, because they are. Ecological Systems Theory as applied here helps us understand how the world around a character affects the character’s development. As always, any questions, please ask!

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Stacy Overby Stacy Overby is a columnist and graphic designer at Her short stories and poems have been featured in multiple anthologies, online, and in lit journals. Scath Oran is her first solo poetry collection, and her debut full length novel, Tattoos: A Black Ops Novel is coming out soon. She is the program director for an adolescent dual diagnosis treatment program by day and an author by night. Her day job provides inspiration for many of her stories. When not at work or writing, she and her husband are playing with their son, hiking, camping, or involved in other outdoor activities – if it is not too cold. She, along with her social media contacts, can be found at

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