If you choose to build a world for your sci-fi/fantasy novel based around a single character, there are some questions you need to start with. Once you know your story line and your character, you can start asking those questions.
Most of the questions you need answered will probably come up during your conversations with your character, but in case you don’t know where to start, I thought I’d explain how I did it.
How old is your character? Where was she born? Does she live now where she has lived her whole life, or did she move? If she moved, why? Is she married? Does she have children?
Why do those questions matter?
Let’s take the age question as an example. Maybe it’s not as important in a story set in normal life, but if you’re writing a speculative novel, age becomes a big deal. You’re building an entire civilization here. Who says your culture has to have the same lifespan as a normal human person?
That being said, if your character is 500 years old, is she the only 900-year-old person in her culture, or is that normal for a middle-aged person in her culture? If you have a culture of people who live to be 500, 1,000, or 1,500 years old, your civilization will look very different from a culture where the average age at time of death is 80. You have to take that into account when you’re designing your culture.
Going back to Velanna the Andarian, the alien character I created for my upcoming series The Legend of the Lightkeepers, I decided she needed to be old. Like centuries old. But I had also decided she would be a martial arts master in order to train my main character. Velanna not only needed the wisdom that centuries would give her, but she also needed to be able to fight.
As a nod to Star Wars, I chose a random age of 900 (”When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not!”), accepting that I might need to change it once I discovered more about Andarian culture.
At first, Velanna was the only alien character I had, and she was raising these three human orphan children alone. But I realized she needed a last name. I happened to hear a name in my ninth grade Bible class, Ittai (2 Samuel 15:19). And I loved it. So I ran with it.
Just Velanna became Velanna Ittai.
But that brought up a flood of more questions. Was that her maiden name or her married name? Was she even married? And if she’s married, where’s her husband? Does she have kids? Does she have any other family? If she lives in a large, established culture, how did she raise three human children in it, like the story demands?
So without giving too much away, this is what I designed:
Velanna, a warrior and a scholar, is one of the last of her kind. I decided to give her a husband (Tolan), a brother (Ioan), and a biological daughter (Tzaitel). And they all lived in a castle in an idyllic valley hidden away from the rest of their world.
A Great War in the northern part of the continent devastated the entire world and resulted in the extermination of their race. When it was over, they fled south, discovered the hidden valley, and took up residence in the mysterious castle there.
I’m skipping lots of plot points in here, but I wanted to explain my thought process. By asking a few questions, I ended up creating a cataclysmic event in Velanna’s history that will affect the way she sees herself, her family, and her world.
Velanna Ittai has lived for centuries. She is married with an adult daughter. Her husband and brother are farmers. And they are all hiding, all afraid, and still wounded from the war that tore their world apart. So when three human children drop into their lives, how does Velanna react?
Velanna may be a warrior and a scholar, but she’s also a mother. The wounds from losing her entire race are still fresh enough to hurt. So she takes the children in, and they become hers. This is not normal for an Andarian to exhibit. Love and compassion in such a visceral response would not be acceptable in their culture, but their culture is mostly gone now.
After the Great War, Velanna becomes a different person. She loves, although she maintains the stoic reserve her people are known for. But there is constant conflict within her because she lived a certain way for centuries, yet she now has three human children she has committed to raise. And they need a different side of her than she has ever been comfortable showing.
This also brings up another potential conflict. What about Velanna’s daughter Tzaitel? How does she react to seeing her mother interact and connect emotionally with three strangers but not with her? The possibilities are endless, but that is character development. Not worldbuilding.
But do you see how your culture can grow and change and mature simply by getting to know the characters who live in it?
So now that the basics of Velanna’s personality are established and the basics of her culture are established, the real work can begin.