Kitty's Writing Toolbox

Almost there! Last odds and ends, where by odds and ends I mean things that you could have started with, but are much easier when you have a general idea of what your people are like underneath you, and you can build these structures off of that.

41. Demographics
42. Linguistics
43. Descriptions
44. Government
45. Religion
41. Look at all of your characters, sort out and list their demographics.

Take a look at all of your characters who have names or speaking parts and take a census of them. Have a look at Wikipedia or the census for your country (if your country takes a census) for ideas on how this is laid out. You might need a lot of scratch paper; the simplest way of doing this is to separate your characters into categories you want to take census of and make hatchmarks below each category for every character that falls under it. It seems like pointless statistic work, but it'll give you an overview of your world as you've created it, which is a good way of seeing if your statistics match the image of your world. For instance, if you picture your city streets as being full of orange people, with the occasional blue or pink person, and you realize that half your major or named characters are blue people, a lot of your single-line characters are blue people, and a lot of people in your orange characters' pasts are blue people, either you need to redo your demographics or your city has a peculiar enclave of blue people. Which implies all other kinds of things about diaspora, cultural centers, and migrant populations.

If you're like me and you have a bizarre fetish for graphs, pie charts, and spreadsheets, you can even make this all prettified in a presentation. But that's not necessary.

More seriously, this is a place where author biases can show up. Not because they're creeping in more here, author bias is a sneaky little bastard that's always around nibbling at your fingers. I mean, now that everything's crunched down to the numbers, this is where the numbers will reflect what you're doing underneath. Take a good look at your racial demographics, your sexual demographics, cultural, sexual orientation, species, social class, and wealth. Make sure that if you're focusing on one cultural group (Fiddler on the Roof, ), one gender (Oz, Shawshank Redemption, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), etc, that there's a good reason for it.
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42. Work the linguistics

Now that you've got your maps, your demographics, and some history and idea of the places, skills, and activities you'll be dealing with, it's time to approach an area that could be overwhelmingly vast or dismissively small. Linguistics!

Not the science of linguistics but the application of language to the context of your work. At its simplest, this might mean you have a small division between characters who speak with complex phrases and multisyllabic words more often than not, who don't say 'um' or pause or repeat themselves when they speak, and characters who say 'ain't' and 'um' and 'might be.' If that's all you're doing, I suggest you at least take a look at the works of Elmore Leonard, or listen to Robert Downey Jr speak. Look at authors who are known for their dialogue, and listen to speakers who have vivid manners of speaking. Paying attention to their habits will help you polish your dialogue so that it sounds more natural and thus more vivid within your story. Your prose, descriptions and actions, will come out in your own voice, and that's as it should be.

If, on the other hand, you're creating whole new worlds, fantasy worlds or new planets and spacefaring races, you might be at the more complicated end of the spectrum with creating a constructed language, or 'conlang.' And there are pages and pages and pamphlets and websites on creating a conlang, though I don't have one to recommend immediately to hand. I'm not going to recreate them here, I'm just going to suggest that this is a good time to take what you have and use it to build a conlang, if you feel the need.

Somewhere in between is the world of dialect and jargon. Jargon gives the flavor of authenticity to your work, but it must be used sparingly so that your broader audience knows what you're talking about and for the love of Twain use it correctly. Ask a specialist in the field in which you're writing if you're not sure. Dialect will make your work vivid, as I said, but it helps to have the right dialect in the right place. Elmore Leonard, Joss Whedon, (and others) are all good examples of writing dialect. They know how people speak and they know how to re-create it so that it feels real to the audience. Ian McShane, Robert Downey Jr, (and others) are also good examples, more on the acting and delivery side.

Look at your outline and your character sheets. Your character sheets will give you some idea of which characters might have distinct speech patterns from the others; think of characters who are from a different place or a different time than most, or think of characters for whom you want to highlight a particular aspect like class or heritage. Your outline will give you some idea of where it's appropriate. Consider that you probably speak more formally or at least more politely at your job, or if you're talking to an official person, than if you're relaxing with your friends. Finally, once you've figured out what your characters' dialects should reflect and where you're going to put them, it helps to make a dialect sheet. It's not hard; a dialect sheet is basically a list of bullet points: quirks of language such as having no articles (Russian) or repeating a word for emphasis (most pidgin dialects), and phrases you might substitute for commonly known phrases that either have fallen out of use or that you've made up entirely.

One last thing to consider as you're finding places in your outline where dialect and jargon goes is, again, clarity. Will writing all chapters that are from the steerage boy's point of view in a lower class, East End type of dialect help sell the story, or will it confuse the audience? It takes some practice to find the balance between the two. Handing it off to a first reader or three helps.

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43. Describe everything!

That was potentially a long exercise, now we'll have a short one, and a fun one I hope. Descriptions! Start with the places and people you're working with in your outline and scribble down in the margins, on a sheet of scratch paper, or on a sticky note, one sentence of description for each of the five senses. As many of them as you can, at least, most characters aren't going to go around licking things. I hope. If you have time and inclination after that, go through and add these descriptions to other places, other characters. Add taste or smell or sound memories to the rites of passage and typical experiences you worked on earlier. Flesh out your world, make it vivid, not just in the organizational or grand details, but in the little things, too. What does it smell like? How do the buildings feel to the touch?

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44. Systems of government (if the scope is big enough) or local bureaucracy (if the scope is smaller)

Only a few major world-building processes left! You can do it! Go back to your scope and look at it, and check it against your outline. We're going to address some more stuff that will (in most cases) remain in the background, but nonetheless will be important in your world.

If your scope is large enough, you'll be dealing with one or several nations. Collections of land and people who have agreed to be united by a name, a line on a map, and perhaps most importantly (certainly most relevant to our exercise) a system of rules by which everyone agrees to abide, and a collection of people who draw them up and enforce them. Note that I did not say the collection of people, i.e. the government, is agreed upon by the people who are governed. That's not always the case.

Have a look at your scope, your outline, and your geography. How many countries will you need to make up? Have a look at all your materials, which is why we save this one for last, and see what you've built up around the story you want to tell. Are there a lot of characters with professions in caregiving or teaching? Are there a lot of soldiers? Is this a well organized land or a land in chaos with everything falling apart? A lot of these things have already been decided, when you were deciding what normal life experiences were and how difficult it was for your protagonists (or antagonists) to obtain some things. Re-read these notes and see what they point to, and then answer the following questions in a page or so of description:

What services are provided by the government? What taxes, tolls, and fees are exacted? How much control does the government have over the population, and how much does the population have over the government? How is it structured to perpetuate itself? To limit itself? How does the population see the government, and how aware are they that different forms of government exist? How aware are they of how the government functions, and what its role is and restrictions are according to the existing laws? What questions haven't you answered that you should be asking? Because I know I haven't covered them all here.

You'll need to do this for every nation you have. You may do this for all the nations you have ideas for, but the point of making this geared towards the outline is that you don't do more work than you need to for the purposes of your work. Splashing around in the creative pools of world-building is for after. It might also help to familiarize or re-familiarize yourselves with the general types of government: republic, democracy, aristocracy, etc. Communism, the social contract. Most of these are short reading. And a tour of most wiki sites on dictators should, if you can stomach it, give you a brief overview of how such governments are run.

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45. Religion

As with government, this is something you'll have built the foundations of already with what you have in your notes so far. In this case you'll be looking at the cultures, the outline, and the demographics of your characters. The demographics will tell you the proportions of your characters, how many overall groups there are and how big they are in relation to each other. The outline will tell you how much detail you need to go into in order to give proper flesh and flavor to your work, and the cultures will tell you where your characters' priorities are, and what shapes them.

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