Jeff Norton: Creating Rich And Believable Words #LondonSWF

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In a very practical LSF session writer-producer and author Jeff Norton talked to us about creating an immersive world for characters to inhabit and have us begin to flesh out and document the story world for our own personal screenplay. People after all are creations of nature and nurture, who they are, why they act the way they act, what motivates them and provides their story, these things are all influenced by their environment. There are many, many aspects of course that form these worlds, and by making them rich and real we make them accessible not only to our characters but to our audiences too.

And so we ran through a rough outline with Jeff of what it is that forms a world that’s real.

A map is always a good place to start. Geography, the lay of the land, the places the character comes from and/or encounters on their journey. Arduous terrain, oceanic animals are they from the city or country, inland or coast? How do these things influence the culture of the world and the life of the character. Economics, Is there scarcity, or labour issues, how are resources, especially scarce resources allocated. Is there social control and hierarchy, who has power and who wants it? How are people incentivised? What are the politics, how are decisions made? What are the value systems?

In the western world for instance, we tend to take for granted the peaceful transfer of power, we have elections etc. Our culture informs character behaviour. It’s possible to write a type of Wikipedia page for our story world defining all the information that makes up that place just as we do to teach ourselves the details about real places. Topics for our page include history, geography, economics, religion, social structure, education culture and climate, politics and demographics.

Within those frames it’s then possible to look at how characters either live with or transgress the moral code. In those aspects we can find the conflict that builds our story. We apply a lens through which our character, or group of characters see the world.

It’s also helpful to map the sources of conflict in the world. Where have been the societal flash points or cold wars? Have there been long simmering battles of ideology? In world building there is production design (the world how you see it) and the world that is what your characters actually do. What has been around that might be perpetuating grudges, are there organisations or general biases influencing events? Where are the powder kegs occurring now or that occurred in the world history. All these things will influence your characters. The world informs the creation of characters. A cool character won’t always fit your world.

What your character was doing the day before page one of the story is also a useful thing to write down. It’s a good way of knowing what your character’s pre-story state is without the pressure of crafting a story around them, a bit like the principle of people being more natural when they know they aren’t watched. You have to be able to know your character’s set of beliefs or world view when you put them in a situation. If in your story world of the wild west people get rich by becoming criminals will your protagonist do that? Jeff thinks that for cinematic story it’s helpful to use superlatives in one vector of a character when building their personality. What are they the best or the baddest at? Are they the best cowboy or the baddest gangster or the sharpest thinker?

Even knowing a lot about our own screenplays, writing down the detail and creating a bible for the world really beds down that information into practical things you can use. Story (the character’s journey within the world) happens at the intersection of a character’s life and times. Writing immersive worlds can be, well, immersive. The morning flew, we all had pages we could take away and some of us could continue to world build forever. One of Jeff’s final suggestions was to give yourself a time limit when writing a world bible. Creating a rich world doesn’t mean getting bogged down in it. But certainly for my story even a little bit of understanding world building had gone a long way.


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