Worldbuilding with Psychology

I haven’t mentioned this before, but I’m close to graduating with a psychology degree. As I was organizing things to move back in at university, I came across some notes from my Developmental Psych class. Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner presented an ecological systems model of child development, which represents a dynamic model of how people develop psychologically depending on their environment. I realized this may be an interesting reference for writers as we consider worldbuilding.

The individual is at the center. Each level interacts with the others and may affect them in different ways and to different degrees at different times. The individual is at the center of the model and has inherent traits which are the result of genetics. The microsystem is the individual’s most immediate surroundings. These are the places and people they come into close contact with on a daily basis, including the home and peer groups. The way microsystems treat the individual influence them, but the behavior of the individual also influences how the microsystems react to them. The mesosystem is essentially comprised of links between microsystems – between home and school, between home and church, between family and peers. Active involvement between microsystems promotes harmony and a sense of like-mindedness. The exosystem consists of linkages between systems that do not directly influence the individual, but do so indirectly by influencing a microsystem. For instance, the parents’ workplaces influences the parents’ behavior in the presence of the individual. The macrosystem consists of more distant influences that still have a significant impact on the individual. These elements often include beliefs, values, and other aspects of culture. For instance, life in a country at war will influence an individual differently than life in a country at peace. The chronosystem simply incorporates the meaningful passage of time. What is in each system, how much it affects an individual, and how can all shift in time.

What does this have to do with worldbuilding?

One can relate Bronfenbrenner’s model to creating a fictional sense of place however one likes, but I’ve drawn some parallels between each level and a corresponding element in worldbuilding. The model looks something like this.

The Protagonist:

The main character (or characters) lies at the center of your worldbuilding. It is through their eyes, or over their shoulder, that the reader experiences the world in which your story is set. A strong sense of place is vital to telling a satisfying tale, and a great deal of it comes down to your protagonists. Like in the original model, the protagonist has certain inborn traits that are a result of nature, but are also influenced by nurture – the other systems, in this case. The world is reflected in the hearts, minds, and behaviors of the people who live in it, and the people are reflected in the world they populate.

The Supporting Cast:

These are the people the protagonists interacts with most, and it’s a two-way street of influence. Their behavior influences the protagonist, but the protagonist affects them as well. You can present a great deal of information about the world through the interactions between characters. The way your protagonist interacts with parents and siblings can reveal family structure and dynamics, and interactions with friends or coworkers can shine light on social classes, pastimes, or employment. What your characters do, how they do it, and how they speak or feel about it will reveal what is normal or not.

The Immediate Surroundings:

Where are all these interactions taking place? The actual physical locales in seen in your story have an impact on the way people behave, but don’t forget the direct effect of setting the scene. One behaves differently at school, as opposed to the mall – how can you use differences like this to portray societal norms and mores in your story? Additionally, the events and values of a world leave physical reminders, which may be as simple as smog over a city unconcerned by or incapable of controlling pollution. Perhaps there is graffiti in the streets leftover from social or political unrest. The remnants of a torn-down shrine or monument may reflect changing values, war, or persecution of certain religions or other groups. Living conditions can portray class differences. Possibilities are endless.

The Social Structure and Culture:

Social structure has ramifications on who can interact with whom and what’s considered appropriate. These rules may be very strict or much more informal. If there are rigorous separations in place according to class, an interaction between members of different status will be shocking to your characters. Speaking out against an elder coworker may have severe consequences, or employees may be under forced retirement deadlines – these differences reveal if old age is revered or looked down upon. What holidays do people celebrate, and how? What manners of speech or behavior are unique to the setting? Social norms will be reflected in the behavior of your characters, but the population is capable of changing those norms.

The Physical Setting: 

The setting at large still has far-reaching influence on your story. The geography itself will determine a number of things about the setting, including the landscape, weather, physical resources available, methods of transportation and more. All of these things trickle down into each of the layers beneath it and leave their fingerprints. If transportation is unfavorable, how does this affect information and cultural exchange? How about the economy? The physical setting is an umbrella of elements which may change everything under it, even in small or indirect ways.

The Genre:

The genre determines, amongst a few other things, how much of each of the above is needed. In essence, genre can be your guide to where you should place your focus in worldbuilding. Fantasy and science fiction often call for a greater emphasis on the physical setting and cultures, while realistic fiction set in real-life places readers are likely to be familiar with is likely to need emphasis on the protagonist and supporting cast. Some genres, such as historical fiction, may need a more evenly balanced blend of each system. The plot structure itself will also have an influence. For instance, in a ‘pursuit’ plot, the ticking clock and pursuit itself are typically considered of more import than the characters, while ‘forbidden love’ plots are all about the people and culture.

Remember, as always, to mold writing advice to your work and not the other way around. They influence of one or more of these systems may be heightened or lessened, depending on the needs of your story, and they may interact differently, perhaps even from chapter to chapter. Thank you for reading, and I hope this can be a useful model for you to use as a springboard in some of your worldbuilding.

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