Being a Better Writer: Character Development, Worldbuilding, or Empty Fluff?

Hey readers! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer, the regular Monday feature where we talk about writing ins and outs!

Most of you knew that, but I have to assume there are some new folks popping in for each post. Because there are, according to the stats I see. So, welcome newcomers, and welcome returning readers. Since I wrote up a good-sized news post last week, there’s nothing that keeps me from diving right into this, so let’s do that.

So … Character Development, Worldbuilding, or Empty Fluff? Where am I going with that? Well, this post topic comes from a few sources, but there’s a core cause of it that spawned this topic on the list. There’s a book out there that I read, along with many others that … well, let’s just say that its “character development” is left a little lacking. This post actually was conceived when I stumbled across someone talking about the book online who posted an entire topic about the book’s “character development” asking how it was character development because it just felt like a bunch of constant, rambling scenes that really didn’t contribute anything except maybe some worldbuilding, but after that just endlessly repeated.

And, since this is the internet, a huge debate ensued, with some attempting to defend the book, while others agreed that yes, it was just empty fluff that the author seemed to think was character development. Those who defended it assured folks that the author had done it and it involved the protagonist, so anything involving the protagonist meant that automatically, it was character development. Also, being the internet, a consensus was not reached.

In turn, that made me pick up my pen and jot down another topic on the list, because if you’re going to write a book, you definitely don’t want to get character development and worldbuilding mixed up. Worse, you don’t want either of them replaced with empty fluff.

Let’s back up: What are each of these terms? Part of the debate with the incident in question was that not only did the author believe that their fluff was “character development” but that statement had confused a lot of readers as well, both those who doubted said author and those who trusted them. So if someone says something like “character development” what does that mean? Or worldbuilding? Or empty fluff? And where can these go wrong?

We’ll start with character development. Character development is when an author gives the reader material that gives a character expanded depth. We’ve talked about this before in BaBW, but a quick way to think of it is material that increases our knowledge or understanding of a character and makes them more three-dimensional.

This can come in a plethora of ways, too, from characters talking to one another to a character performing an action that tells us a little bit about them. Two characters  asking the other’s history, for example. Or a character making a tough call, or reminiscing about their past. As long as it teaches the reader something about the character, it is character development.

Now, a quick caveat: Not all character development is equally useful, which is part of the problem said book had with its fluff. For example, I can tell you that a main character’s favorite color is red—no, blue. We’ll go with blue. It’s neat to know, and can be a fun little factoid that yes, is realistic—most people do have a preferred color, after all. But will it come up or be significant to that character at all? Or is it just a factoid to pad out the page count and give someone a little more info?

For example, it’s one thing to say that a character’s favorite color is blue in passing. Small detail, might not be relevant, but hey, now the reader knows, right? Except later the character is choosing a getaway car for their team, and they point at the blue one. Another member of the crew asks why, and they respond with a shrug and “I like blue.”

Oh hey, suddenly that’s a lot more human. It’s not just useless information, it’s a human moment that a lot of readers can empathize with. Thus making the character more “real” in the reader’s eyes. It’s character development.

That’s what character development does. It teaches the reader about who a character is, what sort of choices they make, and why. And in doing so, it makes them distinct from the characters around them (primary ones who, we hope, are also getting their own development). We learn what to expect and what they like or dislike.

It also, in its own way, acts as a “smoothing agent” for the plot in works where the plot is driven by the characters. After all, if a plot is run by the characters, understanding those characters means that we’ll understand their decisions when they occur in the course of the story. So our character development, if the plot is character-based, plays a large part in the development of the story as well.

Now, does this mean that all character development happens early in a book and stops by the end? No, not at all. Granted, it does mean that you usually see more dropped on the reader early on, and it might slow as the book moves on, but good character development will see later revelations and choices building on those early moments for new bits of character and choice, expanding on them and deepening a reader’s understanding of the character.

Okay, like I said, we’ve spoken about this before. So what about worldbuilding then? Well, worldbuilding is very similar. In fact, if one were to say that the world itself, the setting where your story takes place, is a character, then worldbuilding could easily be explained as “character development for the setting.”

Worldbuilding is when you give your readers details and information about the setting of your book. The “world” it takes place in and on. Location, history, scent, culture … any and all of it is worldbuilding. History of how the town your mystery is set in came to be? Worldbuilding. Explanation of how bakery confections are considered to be extremely culturally significant? Worldbuilding. Details about how the government functions? Diets and common foods? Currency? All worldbuilding!

Now naturally this still runs into the same caveat from above about how useful it is. Sure, it’s neat to read about how said kingdom was originally run by a collective of squabbling nobles who deteriorated into chaotic squabbling and then established a quasi-elective system … but does this have anything at all to do with the plot of your cozy mystery protagonist trying to figure out who’s sabotaging her luncheons at all? No?

Then why bring it up? As with character development above, worldbuilding should be there to bring our audiences deeper into the world we’ve created. We can give them details about how the world operates and functions so that they build, as with characters, expectations for how things work. They build a picture in their head of this place that the characters inhabit and what it’s like. And then as the plot moves forward, this sets the scene for events taking place.

Again, this is a topic spoken at length about on this site before, so I don’t think we need to go into too much detail on what it is and how its used here. If you want more detail, just check any of the many posts on worldbuilding or character development. We’re just establishing a baseline here. And worldbuilding is presenting to the reader facts and details about the setting of your story.

Okay then, so with that then, what is empty fluff, and what did it have to do with the book discussion spoken of in the intro?

Well, it’s pretty simple, really. Empty fluff is what happens when an author thinks they’re giving useful worldbuilding info or character development, maybe even both, but isn’t in any way.

That the empty fluff from the example in question. It was a scene with a character having an elaborate tea ceremony. Complete with various rules and whatnot. Which is, all right, interesting in and of itself. It ticks boxes for both character development and worldbuilding, as we both get this view into the culture and into the character’s interaction with their own culture, plus how they view it.

Where did things go wrong then? Well … it wasn’t just one scene. Oh no. They kept happening, and happening, and happening. And each time the author would dive back into these same details again. And build on them, occasionally, with new ones.

All of which would probably have been okay if any of it had any bearing on the plot. Half the time the scenes happened, they had no bearing on anything. It was just characters sitting around pontificating on things that had no relevance to the story at all. Often it didn’t even teach us anything about them. They just rambled about things that never had any significance in the story at all, in the world, plot, or their characters.

That’s not to say it couldn’t be interesting in the same what that say, a history book can be interesting. Sure, there was worldbuilding there. And the characters were technically doing something.

But … you could also simply skip 95% of it, or in many cases later on, 100% of it, and miss nothing.

Which was where said debate was circling. Some argued that since the fluff was actually giving details on culture and characters, it was therefore good development, while others were saying that it couldn’t be because there wasn’t any point to it. But the truth is … empty fluff can be character development and worldbuilding. It’s just those two things with no point, bearing, or interest to the story or readers.

For example, I’ll pick on one of my own books, like Colony. It would be entirely possible for me to have a scene in there where a character talks about their favorite board game from when they were a child. They could go on and on about the various strategies, the color of the pieces, the rules, the way people play. And sure, it could be interesting.

It’s pretty worthless, however, if it’s just there to be “Hey, let me talk about this cool game that will now never come up again.” Is that character going to use these strategies later? Reference back to the style somehow? Is that how they learned a way to behave?

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering about a deleted scene from Colony, no, there isn’t. I made this example up.

But you see my point. Sure, it’s a bit of writing that informs the reader about something in the world/character. But it has no context or meaning in the story other than existing. And that makes it nothing more than fluff. Empty fluff that could be cut from the story without any loss of context or character because none of it has relevance.

Okay, so we’ve established what each of these things is. Now comes the big moment: what does this have to do with Being a Better Writer?

Simple. You don’t want too much fluff, but a lot of newbie writers will throw it all in anyway for a variety of reasons. Sands, the book in the debate that spawned this topic? The author’s first, and it was pretty clear that they’d not done nearly enough pruning with their editor, because there were lots of moments with just empty fluff.

Now, note that I said too much fluff. A little fluff is fine. Technically, a one-off joke can be fluff. But a little bit of comic relief can be nice. And yeah, it’s fun to learn neat side-bits about a world or a character, even if they aren’t core to the story. But too much of it starts to drag because it begins to obscure the narrative. It’s like … It’s like those horrid TV movie marathons where not only do you have a commercial break, but the network breaks up the movie even further with endless bits of narration about the making of the movie. Sure, it’s interesting, but you’re watching the movie, and would like to get back to it.

Now, in that example, it’s not that the actors and the folks who created the movie are wrong to have passion for it. They made a movie! It’s just that the passion has been misplaced to a time and place where we, the audience, aren’t really that interested in it. We’d like to get back to the attempted murder scene in progress to see if the protagonists escape.

And don’t even get me started on the ones that assume you’ve already seen the movie and spoil the scene you’re about to watch by telling you what happens.

Anyway, fluff in a story tends to be a lot like those extra moments: They can present something cool, but often a young author gets caught up in the fascination of presenting it and forgets to ask “Hey, is this important at all?” They just present it because it’s part of the world they’ve built, forgetting that a reader will start to bog the moment they ask the question of “Why is this important?”

Worse, too much empty fluff can drag the rest of your story down as well. In the book that spawned this, for example, what happens when a reader decides that they can skip these sections of fluff and starts doing so, only to actually skip over one that does contain relevant information?

Whoops. You’ve just gotten a reader confused, because they no longer trusted you to give them relevant information.

Okay, so then, how do we make sure we’re not overloading our readers with extra fluff? Well … I don’t know how other authors do it, but me? I use what I call the “string theory” method.

It’s a play on the physics name for joke purposes. No worries.

Anyway, ever seen a film where a character has set up a “string conspiracy room?” Where they have a central character or moment at the middle, with hundreds of yarn strings leading to related moments, individuals, news reports, etc?

Well, that’s what I do. When I look at an element of a scene, be that a character moment or a worldbuilding moment, I ask myself to mentally trace the “string” back to the core plot. What does it connect to and how? And if it doesn’t … is it worth keeping? Can I find any other reason for it being there?

Sure, it might be cool, but how much weight does it carry? Is it a large chunk? Or a quick line that adds some fluff that isn’t going to bother a reader?

From there, I can work out whether or not I’m keeping or cutting it. For me, this is a system that works, and I’ve used it well on many of my books.

Will this method work for you? Maybe, maybe not. I think each author learns their own system for figuring out what’s fluff and what isn’t, but there’s something that each of them does share in common.

None of them want fluff dragging the story down. They want their character development and worldbuilding to be integral to the story, not an extraneous part of it.

If you want to be a writer, or go a step further and be an author, ask yourself what’s fluff and what isn’t in your own work. You might find that there’s a lot of stuff you’re slipping in that becomes too much fluff, that you’re giving the reader information that isn’t needed, and is too much to simply add a bit of “Oh that’s interesting” as well.

Character development and worldbuilding deepen the depth of our characters and world. They make them more real. But they also need to serve a purpose in the story doing so.

Keep the fluff light. Keep the characters and world moving the story forward.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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