(Pensacola, Florida; Feb. 23, 2022,) – Worldbuilding is a uniquely wonderful opportunity for a writer to enlarge the glorious tapestry of the literary world with exciting and heretofore unknown characters and stories.
However, worldbuilding can seem like a daunting challenge. The first step needed to keep this process within manageable limits is to figure out how you best record the information. I find outlines and timelines work best for me. You might do better to use a narrative summary, or even a voice recorder. If a fellow author tells you that your personal means of recording and organizing your worldbuilding operation is wrong, then write them out of your literary life. Your method might bear some fine-tuning, but there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this part of the craft, there’s only what works for you.
The next step I want to discuss is the creation and development of biographies for your characters and/or families. It’s pretty obvious to say that your primary characters (protagonists and antagonists) will need biographical data that’s more highly detailed than ancillary characters, but, again, the level of detail you create is up to you. The level of detail you go into is only ‘wrong’ if it fails to adequately support your story.
The world of the Accidental Detective takes place in our world. I’ve created fictional organizations and events, but these weave in and out of actual history. However, the Shepherd Odyssey (yep, that’s its name!) covers about 4,000 years of history. The biographical data for the three primary families, the Shepherds, Grays, and Stavengers, can be traced back a few hundred years into our actual past, but then they go forward into the far future of a science fiction epic I’m developing.
This level of development has been driven by several factors, all of which are unique to me. I’m a very family-oriented man, and most of my characters reflect that part of my personality. Therefore, it makes sense for me to develop the family backstories as deeply as are the characters’ individual biographies. I’m also strongly influenced by my extensive training as a historian, archivist, and reporter. These three disciplines all require in-depth research into the subject at hand (in other words, I’m just conforming to old, well-established habits long-ingrained during my professional life).
Again, this level works for me. It might not work for you, and that’s not a bad thing at all!
Although I’m keeping my character bios confidential (releasing those would unleash major spoilers for upcoming novels), allow me to provide you a glimpse of the family backstories for the Three Families (the Shepherds, Grays, and Stavengers). The Three Families are the social underpinning for everything in the universe I’m crafting, so, for me, doing a deep dive that delves into such detailed data is definitely required for my fictional dissertations:
The Shepherds, the primary family, originated as the ‘Sceaphierde,’ (Old English), a shepherding clan in the 10th century English hill country. The family converted from Druidism to Roman Catholicism somewhere between the 10th and 16th centuries. They weren’t terribly happy when Henry VIII broke from Rome, beginning the persecution of Catholics in England, and they fled to nearby Catholic France. A small twig broke from the family tree, finding its way across the Atlantic and sinking roots into French Quebec. From Quebec, the family branched out, with one branch settling in Rhode Island in the late 18th century.
Andrew Victor, the great-grandfather of Isaac Shepherd (our Accidental Detective) left Woonsocket, Rhode Island, migrating through the U.S. until ending up in Hawai’i after World War I. Andrew Victor’s marriage to Spanish immigrant Juana Garcia de Arintero transformed the family from English to Hispanic. During World War II, Isaac’s grandfather, Andrew Francis, secretly married Nakano Takeko, a Nisei woman (the secrecy was required due to the ongoing Second World War). This now added Japanese blood to the mix of English, French, and Spanish blood flowing through Isaac’s veins…and we haven’t even begun to discuss the heritage Isaac’s mother brings to the table!
The Grays trace themselves to the Goslars, a Polish family living in the city of Wrocław since at least the late 12th century. The growing threat of fascism led Otto Goslar, great-grandfather to Abraham Gray (Isaac’s detective partner), to bring his immediate family to the U.S. in 1932 prior to the rise of Nazi Germany. Reacting to antisemitic sentiments in the U.S., Otto changed the family name from Goslar to Gray before ending up in Atlanta where he reestablished the tailoring business he’d abandoned in Poland. He had three sons, Abraham, Joshua, and Jacob. Abraham and Jacob were killed in action during the Vietnam War, leaving only Joshua to continue the family line through his two sons, Abraham and Aaron (sadly, Aaron would commit suicide as a teen, leaving Abraham the only living member to carry on the Gray family line). The American Grays are the only branch of the family left after the European Goslars were wiped out in the Holocaust.
The Stavengers began as the MacSteeds in Scotland, but were chased out in 1299 for participating in the First War of Scottish Independence. Changing their name to McStavenger and settling in Ireland to hide from vengeful English authorities, the clan thrived until Seamus McStavenger emigated to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Desperate to avoid anti-Irish sentiment, Seamus McStavenger Americanize his name to Johnathan Stavenger. Johnathan (formerly Seamus) Stavenger is the great-great-grandfather of Isaac’s high school friend, Aidan Stavenger.
Straight up, I know this is an extraordinary amount of detail. Heck, I’ll even say here for the record that much of it might never make it into any of the books I write. However, this level of detail works for me by providing the context and references I need to know who and why my characters are who they are.
You’re a unique person to yourself, and only you can decide how deep you wish your backstories to go. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here. You need only develop enough biographical detail to support your story. There is precious little known about the biographical background of Ebeneezer Scrooge, but no one can discount the enduring impact that character still has on modern Western society.
As with the method you use to record information, the level of detail you decided to put into each character’s backstory is solely up to you! You’re a writer brimming with ideas and adventures, so develop your characters’ backstories only to the level you need. Worldbuilding is a uniquely personal privilege each writer gets to enjoy. Once you find the best method for you to record your information, then begin reaching for the stars!
This conversation has focused on developing your characters’ biographies and backstories. Next time we’ll talk about developing the world itself (the social/cultural/political aspects). It’s your story; have fun with it!!
Keep writing, keep dreaming, and, until we get together again, keep doing great things!
-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/Dt46NeKhD-w
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