World Building through Voice

A while ago I was working on a project set in a different world than ours, and one of the struggles I’ve encountered with that is how to build the world without explicit world-building exposition. One method I have settled on over the years is to do a lot of the heavy lifting through the characters that populate that world, through their dialogue and also through the thoughts of the point of view character. This is an excerpt that is heavy on character in order to build a universe.

Duncan squatted on his heels, unwilling to lower himself completely into the mud. Not that it really would’ve made much difference, he reckoned. Everything and everyone was already plastered in the stuff. Being beneath a tree really made little difference when all the leaves were on the ground with you. Little skeletal branches didn’t do much of anything against this kind of weather. He looked down at the ground, poking a twig into the mud repeatedly. Most exciting thing he’d done all day, really.

“Shit on this rain,” Broad Brock muttered, causing him to look up. The little lowlander was squinting up at the grey sky so that his thick brows were all drawn together. “I swear it’s been on like this since Dunland.”

“Quit your whining, mate,” Seamus scowled, poking at the pathetic little fire he’d managed to get going, “I don’t need it gratin’ on me ears. Storm’s bad enough without.”

A booming laugh brought everybody’s head round to where Skjol stood, muscled arms bare and outstretched, mouth open to the sky like a little kid. “Y’call this a storm?” He shouted in his thick accent. “Naught but a drizzle, this! I braved worse when I was a lad still clingin’ to me mother’s apron!”

“Oh, aye, we all know how strong and fearsome Skjol the Reaver is.” A woman’s voice said through a distant boom of thunder. “The last of the Bloody Handed, sole survivor of the Crimson Fleet and so on.” She spat into the fire, eliciting a growl from Seamus who was still poking at it hopefully. “And yet you’re scared of what I’ve got in my pants,” she finished, slapping her crotch with a gauntleted hand and a grin.

“Well, I think you’d better get over the fact that not everybody wants your little treasure, Aoife,” Skjoll said with a grin of his own that near split his face in two. “Though I’m not sure how little it is these days, what with all the traffic you get.” Duncan felt himself laughing along with the still grinning Skjol and Seamus, while Brock snorted his own amusement. None of them laughed quite so hard as Aoife though, which he reckoned was good. Most women would’ve taken offence at that, and with Aoife offence usually meant bared steel and spilled blood and the way he figured it they had enough people looking to spill their blood without them spilling each others.

He went back to poking in the mud with his little stick as the easy laughter of his comrades died back into a damp silence. Seemed nothing could kill a good mood faster than poor weather. Well, unless you were a madman like Skjol. Duncan looked over at him and sure enough he was still there, standing in the pouring rain without a care in the world. “Just standing there to prove something?” He called over to him.

Skjol didn’t even bother to turn when he replied, voice almost drowned out by another boom of thunder. “Don’t gotta prove nothing, ‘cause I ain’t got nothing to prove.”

Well that was sound reasoning, true enough, and the more he thought about it the more sense it made. He grunted, though it didn’t seem likely Skjol heard him out there in the rain. Time was he would’ve gone and joined him, to prove he had nothing to prove either. ‘Course, that was when he’d been younger and his hands hadn’t been as red. Reckoned it was pretty obvious he didn’t have anything to prove either, except maybe to himself. None of them did, really.

“Where you think the chief and Smiles got off to?” he asked nobody in particular, more in an attempt to keep a conversation going than anything else. His attempt was wasted though. Seamus just shrugged and threw another damp log on the fire and Aoife went back to sharpening her sword. The metal scraping on stone was enough to set his teeth on edge though he couldn’t figure why. He’d sharpened more than a few blades himself over the years, and Aoife spent enough time honing hers that he was surprised there was any metal left at all.

The minutes seemed to slog by as he kept on poking the mud. The crack and sizzle of the wet little fire, Brock’s muttering and the sound of Aoife’s nightly sharpening mixed with the pounding rain. In all, it could be worse, he supposed. After all, they was all still breathing and that was somewhat of a miracle right there. Of course, with no sign of the chief or Smiles, that might not be the case after all.

Time drizzled on by until it must’ve been getting on towards nightfall, though there was no way to tell what with the sky being the same color all day. Skjol had retired to the other side of the bony little tree. Apparently even his enthusiasm for being soaked had its limits. At some point Aoife had stopped sharpening her sword, though he wasn’t quite sure when. Time seemed pretty meaningless without anything to look forward to. He almost chuckled at that, just like Thom would’ve done before he went back to the dirt. ‘Course thinking of Thom didn’t do any good to his spirits either, and no mistake. Too many good people turned to dust this past year. So many it was hard to know who was still left standing.

His stomach growled, bringing more immediate concerns to mind. No point worrying about the dead while you’re still breathing after all, or at least that’s what his ma had always said. Sound advice for an empty stomach, that.

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