In A World…: World Building in First Person

In A World… is a series of posts about world building, where our contributors share strategies and tips for creating well-rounded worlds.

World building is hard. Fantasy or contemporary, with multiple points of view or one, it’s not an easy task. Just check out the many other posts that are part of the “In A World..” series by my fellow WBP writers. 

Right now, I’m working on something that has a single first person POV character and creating the world she occupies has been difficult, but also really interesting. All my previous projects have been written in third person with multiple POVs, where I was able to get at the world from different angles, explore its many sides, it’s flaws and successes (which, depending on the character, can be the same thing), and ultimately give the reader a (hopefully) holistic view. With multiple perspectives, you can play with juxtaposing characters and how they see the world, and therefore show important aspects of their personalities, their desires, their fears; you can show an outsider’s view and an insider’s one, or that of a villain who wants to destroy the world and a hero who wants to save it, and how both of them are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Like people, no place is perfect, and having several characters’ perspectives is a great tool for showing a place’s complexities and dichotomies, and ultimately, making it feel real. 

So then, how do you do all that, with just one perspective? The short answer is, as always, it depends. It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’ve chosen to tell a story through one single set of eyes, you’ve probably got a good reason. Maybe you’re playing with an unreliable narrator, or you want the story to feel immediate and personal, so the reader feels like they are in the middle of the action. Or maybe, probably, this character’s journey is just the one you’re the most interested in exploring–their growth or devolution, their struggles, their hopes, etc. 

Whatever the specifics, there’s something you’re trying to do with this character, and world building is one of the many ways you can do it. The way we see things is deeply influenced by who we are, what we consider important, what we fear, even who we love. I mean Bella hated Forks, then she fell in love with Edward, and suddenly the small town where her boyfriend could more easily hide his identity as a vampire and therefore spend more time with her didn’t seem so bad. 

If you’re working with an unreliable narrator, then one of the ways you can show the reader they are unreliable is by slowly pulling apart their world view.

If you’re telling a coming of age story, then almost always the character’s view of the world is going to be radically altered over the course of the book.  Maybe the character starts off idealistic and slowly becomes more of a realist. Maybe they start off hardened and misanthropic, and end up more hopeful and open to the world around them. 

Think the Grinch, hating Christmas and all the Whos down in Whoville, until he realized what he needed was to feel included. 

Think Elphaba, finally going to the Emerald City, ready to fulfill her dream of meeting the wizard and gaining acceptance, only to discover the wizard is a fraud and she doesn’t want acceptance if it means compromising her morals. 

You have to decide what the world is, what your character thinks it is, and then what makes up the difference. And in order to show that difference, you have to do a lot of work in the margins. 

If your POV character is an outsider, then you can play with the way other characters introduce them to the world. My character isn’t an outsider, but if she was the new girl in town, then one character might invite her to hang out at the diner across the street from the school while another might bring her to the town hall for a history lesson, while yet another might simply tell her to get out now, while she still can. Maybe your world isn’t friendly to outsiders, which can mean they’re just insular and protective, or it could mean they’re hiding something. Maybe your world is overly friendly to outsiders, which definitely means they are hiding something. 

If your character is an insider, then things are a little harder. An outsider is learning about the world at the same time as the reader, but an insider already has the information a reader lacks, and figuring out ways to convey that information can be difficult. You can end up relying too much on simply telling the reader things rather than showing them. Obviously some telling is required in writing, is even necessary. But you don’t want multiple pages of your character explaining the world to the reader for no real reason. 

One way to do this is to show the info the POV character has is actually inadequate or incorrect. My character thinks her town is close to perfect, and while it has a rough history, that’s in the past. She doesn’t spend very much time looking back, until something happens that brings that history to the forefront. And then she has to re-examine what she thinks she knows and gains new information in the process. 

You can use other characters as a sounding board to show differing viewpoints as well, similar to when your character is an outsider. For example, my character can’t imagine ever leaving the town, but plenty of other people can and have, and just mentioning that fact shows the reader that what my character sees as comforting others find suffocating. 

For a more specific example, and because the project I’m working on takes place in a small fictional town, let’s look at Stars Hollow from GILMORE GIRLS.

Obviously this show isn’t technically a first person POV, but the viewer is encouraged to see Stars Hollow the way Lorelai and Rory do–a wonderfully charming, quirky small town. But then there’s outsiders like Emily, who can’t comprehend why her daughter would want to live there, and Paris, who obviously thinks it’s hicksville (“Drive west, make a left at the haystacks, follow the cows”). Even Luke, who’s lived there his whole life, often complains about how small it is, how nosy the people are, and disparages the traditions that others find endearing.

And like Luke, even your main POV character can serve as a contradiction to their own perspective. Luke complains about Stars Hollow but never leaves, even when he has the opportunity. Veronica Mars tells us she despises the town that turned against her father and took her best friend, but she sure does spend a lot of time trying to make it a better place. 

Using a first person POV when world building can also facilitate a specific mood or tone you want to convey. Any time you’re working with a deep perspective, the way a person sees their surroundings should be colored by their emotions. Someone who is scared of the dark is going to see the woods very differently than say the monster who lives in them. If you want things to have a sinister undertone–maybe even one your character, and therefore reader, is only picking up subconsciously–you can describe the setting with specific language that conveys that feeling. Are those trees hunched and hovering over you with bare, spindly branches like crooked fingers? Or are they a curving canopy providing cover from the hot sun? Does that river shimmer like silver under the moonlight (something valuable) or like mercury (something beautiful but ultimately poisonous)? The way a character sees the world says more about them than the world itself, so use that! 

You might have a limited perspective with a first person POV, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do all the things a writer does with three or five or ten perspectives. Sometimes it means you can do even more.

One thought on “In A World…: World Building in First Person

  1. Tale of the Cattail Forest actually began from world-building: the inspiration came from just taking a walk on a Greenway and we were just on a boardwalk and I looked to the left and saw all of these cattails and some trees and what came out of my mouth was “Cattail Forest”- an idea was born from that.

    The Cattail Forest isn’t a fantasy world that is expansive like Narnia or Middle Earth. You have Fairy Creek, Cattail Marsh, and Graysloup.

    Fairy Creek-home to the Fairy Frogs, who are naturally gifted in the arts. It has clear creeks lined with painted pebbles that the Fairy Frogs painted themselves. In the middle basically, there is a grove of trees with round treehouses: each suited to the craft of the Fairy Frog. There is actually one really big one there. Those trees at the bottom have small red mushroom with white dots. To the left of these treehouses- a little way, there is a Daisy-shaped Gazebo. Obviously, it is filled with Cattails. I used to the call the place Cattail Forest, but later called it Fairy Creek (better fit). The Fairy Frogs have the most culture in The Tale of the Cattail Forest.

    Cattail Marsh- former home to the Fairy Frogs. Same cattails, a couple creeks and closer to the toads.

    Graysloup- home to the toads. Humid and murky. Dirty looking creeks. Filled with trenches and ditches. There are big rocks seen when you enter on both sides. Filled with lots of mud. “The Bog” is in Graysloup and everything- the creeks, ditches, trenches, and mud are much deeper.

    So my book originated from world building.


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