What are the pros and cons of basing the world on the characters found in it and conversely what are the pros and cons of basing the characters on the world in which they live?

  • 5
    In fiction both are good.
    – 渡し守シャロン
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 19:05
  • 2
    Welcome to the site William. As it stands this question is might opinion based. I am going to take a crack at editing it to make it NOT opinion based. If you think my edits change the intent of your question you can roll the changes back.
    – James
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 19:11
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    I'm following the vote to get this on writers...honestly the best answer I can come up with is 'it depends on what the author wants' anyway. @WilliamOliver - welcome to the non-stem stackexchange network, please don't take this as criticism of your idea/question here as I think it's a really good one...we just want it to hit the forum that it will get the most relevant answer to and I'd encourage you to keep posting ;)
    – Twelfth
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 19:22
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    I think writers.stackexchange.com/questions/9189 covers this one. Probably also writers.stackexchange.com/questions/3274/… .
    – Standback
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 5:53
  • 3
    Can I close this as a duplicate of those?
    – Standback
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 5:57

2 Answers 2


The advantages of building a world and then basing the characters on it is that this is generally the direction that the real world works. Your parents were not chosen based on what profession you were supposed to enter. They were your parents first, and they shaped your profession. Building in this order typically helps make very credible worlds because you're not cheating when you build the world.

However, few stories are focused on the world. They usually center around characters and a plot. In these cases, you tend to want to avoid weakening your plot just to fit the world. Nothing's worse than building up your story of the boy turned king than finding out that the world brought the black plague to his castle and he died a horrible death just before the plot really took off. Many stories rely on exceptional happenings, and it can be hard to build a world and then find those exceptional events. It can be easier to bend your world to fit your characters. However, this comes at a price: the believably of your world can go down because the characters start "getting lucky" too much.

The ideal solution is to balance both approaches. Make it so that its hard to tell from your final product whether you took the world first or character first approach. Create a beautiful gleaming plot with rich characters, and make sure the world fits that. Make sure that the world looks like it really could have generated these characters.

  • "and he died a horrible death just before" - emmm, doesn't this sound a bit like Game of Thrones, one of the best selling series nowadays?
    – Mołot
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 20:33
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    @Molot - not exactly. Certainly the "he died a horrible death" bit, but the next few words of "just before the plot really took off" is the key. The horrible deaths in GOT are what makes the plot really take off AND it's reflective of the world too.
    – user18397
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 3:56
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    @Mołot The secret of character deaths is to kill characters after they served their purpose for the plot and then use the death to further the plots and character developments of other characters.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 12:40

Stories are fundamentally about people, not places. The psychology of why we like stories has been fairly well worked out, and the archetypes of stories are fairly well understood. At its simplest, a story is about a character with a desire, the things that frustrate that desire, the things the character does to overcome those things and achieve their desire, and the final achievement of loss of the desire.

Everything else in a story revolves around this. If a story invents a world (rather than using the one we live in) it is because an invented world is a better vehicle, in some way or another, for the staging of this conflict between a particular desire and the things that frustrate that desire. A fantasy world may create the conditions for a new desire, or new ways to frustrate a desire, or new ways to overcome those frustrations. These need to be analogs of real desires, real frustrations, and real opportunities or the story will not hold the reader, but a fantasy world can provide a new stage on which to tell one of the archetypal stories and to highlight its key conflicts in different ways.

All of which means that character comes first, and the world creates the right stage on which to tell the story of the character.

That does not mean you can't do worldbuilding and then discover a character and place them in that world. But it means that actual storytelling begins with character, not world building.

  • I disagree. Hard SF is fundamentally about something other than people. It may be about places. Read Eden by Stanislaw Lem, which tells the tale of human astronauts exploring an alien planet. The planed and the life on it is the focus of the tale. Travel reports can also focus on places, rather than protagonist characters, with the people living in the places being an aspect of that place just like the architecture, and not true characters in the sense of fiction.
    – user5645
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 6:21
  • Eden is about the encounter with the alien and the desire to understand and to survive. The desire to understand is frustrated repeatedly by the sheer alienness of the world and society of Eden. It ends in the nominal success of survival, but the deeper failure of understanding. Telling that story required a huge amount of world building, in order to create a world that was such a challenge to understand and survive in, but it is all in service of the fundamental themes and the story arc.
    – user16226
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 11:54
  • The question of what x is 'about' gets very philosophical, very fast, so I'm not sure there's much ground to be won here. I'd venture that on all the objective elements we probably already agree: a delicious setting benefits any story, but you'd limit your audience pretty hard if you threw out everything mbakeranalecta has recommended.
    – Cakebox
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 13:04
  • @Cakebox There are different kinds of people in this world. Some of them like character driven fiction, others like idea driven fiction. What mbakeranalecta writes applies mostly to the first. Lem and other hard SF authors have repeatedly been criticized for employing cardboard characters. I think this criticism is not valid. Not because the characters aren't cardboard. They are. But because those characters only serve as a placeholder perspective for the readers to experience the world that is described without being filtered through the emotions and goals of a character.
    – user5645
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 13:35
  • @what That is fair enough. The extent of the gaming industry is sufficient proof that many people take pleasure in things other than stories. (Points are a curiously strong motivator.) So, yes, you can use the novel form as a vehicle for ideas rather than stories. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would be an example. But my comment was about stories. The OP may not want to tell a story. But as far as story goes, the form of story, and the psychology and anthropology of story, is well understood, and my answer is consistent with that knowledge.
    – user16226
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 14:50

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