Kitty's Writing Toolbox

Skills and culture! Because writers and readers love infinite variety. This is a place where it would be very easy to fall into stereotypes and sloppy thinking, so make sure you're making your world both tailored to and as individual as your own story.

16. Skills
17. Details
18. Culture Redux
19. Bias
20. Taboos
16. Develop your skillsets

Go back to your character sheets for each character, and get out a couple more sheets of scratch paper. Starting with the first character that comes to mind or hand and continuing through, write down each skillset, i.e. each hobby or occupation, volunteer position or vocation. One to three word identifiers will do. Right now all you're doing is making a list of the activities and jobs that feature in your work.

Next to each skillset, or in some way that links to the skillset name, write down five or six skills that a person in that position would be expected to have. A writer would have advanced knowledge (one hopes!) of spelling and grammar in at least one language. He or she might also have typing skills, research skills or organization skills. Don't laugh, writers, it's true. A priest might have counseling training, knowledge of religious rituals of his or her particular religion, perhaps some history, and certainly would be literate if not well-read. A pilot of a small transport ship would need to be skilled in mathematics and astrocartography and have practiced reflexes. And so on and so forth. If you don't know what skills are required in one job or another, ask! One of the miracles of this thing called the internet is that you ca be in communication with many, many more people than you would otherwise.

Keep in mind that a single character might have several skillsets, depending on what they do for a living and how many hats they wear in their daily life.

In each character page, underneath the character information you have so far, write down a three to five sentence paragraph per skillset that that character possesses. Ultimately you might have five or six paragraphs describing the skills your character possesses, and now keep in mind that other people in this world will have these skills as well. If you find yourself in abrupt need of fleshing out another character you'd only given a moment's thought to, you might want to go back to these paragraphs and see that you had a fishing boat captain who played for Irish dancers in her spare time, so this other musician might have these skills but also those of that racing jockey over there. Mix and match!

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17. Familiarize yourself with the relevant details

And back to the outline again. Remember when I said this was going to be a functional approach geared towards writing a story? I meant it.

Look at each scene of your outline. By this point if you only have sections or acts, you should pencil in a rough scene progression. For each scene, write down the overall activity taking place, one or two sentences should do it. Now go back to your character pages. Take a look at the skillset required, and go back to your outline and add a sentence or two (or more if you need it) describing in more detail what these characters would be doing. It's a little complicated, so here's an example: Say you have a scene in which a musician is rehearsing for a concert later on in the novel. Your scene notes might look like this.

// Sascha and the gang rehearse for Horrorfest.

In which case you would go back to your skillset grouping and check the related skills, then go back to the outline and add a couple sentences.

// Sascha and the gang rehearse for Horrorfest. Sascha is doing a sound check while Steve tunes up his bass. Jules has the set list in front of him and is making some tweaks.

Because we often write what we know, what appeals to us, a lot of this will involve going over information we already know. However, again, you might find you're writing a science fiction novel about robots and what you know about robotics would fit on a thimble. This helps guide your research so that you don't get sidetracked and fleshes out your novel at the same time.

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18. Develop the culture around these various activities.

Go back to your Culture section, and have a look at the categories you've created. Then have a look at your list of skillsets. With a little luck and maybe a little fudging, almost all skillsets should also fit into a 'culture' sub-section. You might have to add one or two, depending on how specific you went initially.

Under each sub-section, for each skillset, write a three to five sentence paragraph describing it in the progression from novice to mastery. Add another couple of sentences describing the social weight, positive or negative, attached to the skill grouping. Finally, determine how common or rare the skillset is. For example:

Culture --> Crafts --> Pottery. Here goes a description of the progression of a potter, from where they might take classes and learn the skill to what they might be able to do once they master the skill. Followed by a couple of sentences describing what people in the setting or settings would think of a potter. Followed by how common skilled potters are in this world.

Culture --> Sports --> Pod racer. Here goes a description of the progression of a pod racer, from how one learns to drive a pod to what the life of a famous pod racer might be like. Followed by a couple of sentences describing how they're viewed by the public, followed by how common skilled racers are.

Culture --> Finance --> Corporate lawyer. You get the picture.

If you find yourself coming up with other skillsets, or something that just doesn't fit, by all means, add it in as well. Keep in mind that we're looking at culture in an anthropological sense, which is commonly and originally defined as what people do in a society. This involves knowledge, beliefs, customs, habits, laws, practices, rituals, expectations, hobbies, products, foods, transactions... many, many things. If you're not doing it for your immediate survival (eating because you're hungry, sleeping because you're tired) chances are it has some culture attached to it. Right now we're just taking skill groupings and describing them in the context of a larger culture because it's easier to approach describing it piece by piece.

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19. Describe positive and negative biases

Go back to your character sheet and look at all the aspects of the characters you've listed so far. Get a piece of scratch paper and start writing down all the negative prejudices each aspect of this character might face. I highly recommend separating them into economic, biological, social, professional, etc. Then go into your culture section and, in a whole separate section from your previous categories (which are most likely all to be related to Things People Do), write about a page on each overall prejudice grouping on that list. Double check against your diversity entry in your culture section, and if you don't already have a representative of most of the main categories, you might want to add a line or three about the negative views of other people on the categories not represented by your characters. Just because you don't have catmen as main heroes or villains in your work doesn't mean someone won't start bitching about how filthy and savage they are, even as an aside.

Some of these will overlap from character to character, i.e. unless you have a two-person cast with one man and one woman, your women and your men will share the potentiality of being treated as their gender rather than as a whole and individual person. Likewise you might have three scientists in your work, and so they might face the same outside perception as being snobby and intellectual. Thus, rather than separate it by character, clump them all into groupings and organize your thoughts into a paragraph for your culture section.

Keep in mind that these are external perceptions, not descriptions of what these people or practitioners of certain skills actually do or are like. Also, some stereotypes and opinions might only be held by one group within that same category against the other, i.e. literary authors prejudiced against genre authors. Crips against Bloods, etc.

Do the same thing with prejudices for, and put them after prejudices against in each category of bias. Remember that bias exists in positive or affirmative aspects as well as negative or derogatory. Also keep in mind that the aspect of a person, race, religion, or skill or profession that one group of people hates and derides might be the same aspect another group of people praises, or vice versa. Now we are focusing on the positive impressions, so keep it to the praises. If it gives you an idea for a bias against, go back and note it in the appropriate section.

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20. Develop taboos

Start off with checking your outline: how many distinct culture groups are coming into play in your world? Overall groups, to start with, because we could go on all day describing subcultures and that's later. We're working in a broad sense, now; for every distinct culture group (Mainstream American, Mainstream Barsoom, Mainstream Harry Potter Wizard) write five paragraphs: one paragraph each of five to seven sentences describing a taboo activity, state, desire, or thing. One sentence description, two or three sentences context, and one or two sentences explaining why it is taboo, even if it's just "because people find it disgusting."

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