My favorite book series of all time is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. I think the intricacies and attention to detail makes them some of the best crafted and best written books ever! To put it in perspective, the only reason I started to read Game of Thrones was because Robert Jordan endorsed the first book on the front cover. Needless to say, I hold his opinions and his work with the highest of esteem. After finishing his series (all 14 glorious entries) I started to view character work and world building more like a canvas and less like an essay. It is no longer work to me, but rather a genuine pleasure to lose myself in. Today I’d like to take a moment and talk about how books, specifically The Wheel of Time, have affected my thoughts on world building and character development.
First we need to understand what world building and character development are. World building isn’t just naming a city and planning an adventure. World building is understanding, at least in a general sense, the culture and government of every major city/state in your world. Are there foreign powers? Is there friction between the people and the power?
Character development is more difficult in my opinion. It’s not just leveling up a PC or giving basic stats to an NPC. Character development is making the characters come to life. It is populating the world with real people in real time. They have real jobs, real problems, real families, and real value to the world around them.
This gets into my favorite saying regarding character development. THERE ARE NO MINOR CHARACTERS. Please allow me to explain. I don’t mean to say that every single character in your world must be the lynchpin for something huge happening in the world. That is insanely unrealistic. What this saying means is that every character can have a major impact on the experience of the player character. For example, in The Wheel of Time there is a character that makes fireworks. She is only mentioned in the background of the first book as someone who is in an argument out of vision. She comes back three books later and is saved by one of the main characters. She then gives him something that is vital to the climax later in the book. This is the best example I have ever seen of using a “background character” to impact the plot in a major way.
When character building or world building, don’t be restrained by the idea that only innkeepers have gossip, or only adventures can earn you esteem, or only violence can advance the plot. Books have taught me that your options are limitless as far as plot, the world, and the characters that you work with in paper RPGs. Will everything always work out according to plan? No. But half of the fun is failing. Even if you do everything right sometimes things don’t go to the way you expect, and some of the best moments happen that way! In reading more books than I care to recount right now, I have learned that failure drives a plot harder and makes it so much more realistic than constant success. One of the most fun things about paper RPGs for me is knowing that I can tackle a problem in so many different ways, even if I fail once or twice. Creativity blossoms when the pressure is on.
But back to world building. In many novels writers will spend pages talking about one scene. This is to place the reader in the shoes of the character, and give them the ability to see, smell, hear, feel, and taste everything that happens in the world. That level of detail can translate very well into paper RPGs, but instead of three pages it only takes a few sentences. Putting the players in the shoes of their characters encourages roleplay and deeper interactions within the party as they traverse through this environment you have given them.
Finally, the most important thing that books have taught me about worldbuilding is that characters drive the story, not conflict. This is something I’ve hinted at throughout the article, and now I’d like to provide you with some examples to help you understand. In The Wheel of Time, there is a span of about 3 books that get very political and advance slowly in terms of travel and conflict. However that does not retract from the story moving as a whole. So much dialogue is vital to events later in the series that without this time taken to slow down and re-focus many major plot points would be lost to the wind. The characters and their dialogue moves the story forward, not fighting and action. That is the biggest lesson I have learned from books.
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