What is the one thing that defines your story more than any other element? Part 2 posed the question, here is the answer:
Characters define more elements of a story than anything else because characters are what a story is all about.
Think about it, our lives are filled with people. People that we work with, people that we fall in love with, people we hate, people we admire, people who we don’t care about. We communicate stories in order to transfer information and experiences about people.
Still don’t believe me? Let’s go back to that story about a baby who is in charge of a factory floor for the afternoon. The character of the baby will define the action of the entire story. If the baby is passive, stays in the crib the whole time, we don’t have a story. Also, if the baby is too needy, cries the moment he is left alone, we still won’t have a story. No, the only way that we would have a story is if that baby is adventurous, fun, and completely naïve about the ways of the world.
Characters define our story structure and conversely our characters are defined by our story structure. The two are inseparable, therefore when you get stuck developing your idea for a story you should shift your attention to the characters that you are telling the story about.
Who are Your Characters?
Spend some time exploring whom the people are that you are writing about. Go into as much detail as you can. This is research into your own imagination, though once you have a better understanding of your characters you will want to further investigate real world examples of them.
Are you writing a love story? Who are the lovers? A boy and a girl. Okay, how old are they? They are just finishing high school, actually one is older than the other. Interesting, who is older than the other? The boy. Okay, how much older? It seems like if the boy is older, getting out of high school, then the parents of the girl might have something to say about it. Actually, the families of both kids don’t approve of their relationship.
You see where I’m going with this.
The character’s circumstances determine the story while their characteristics define the type of story that is told. The more you know about your characters, their backgrounds, their histories, the more they will inform the narrative of your story.
This is how an idea fleshes out to become a novel.
As with developing your idea from the original concept, there are no wrong answers. You must simply throw out your ideas and see which ones work and which ones are silly. All too often we censor ourselves before our ideas can even come out. This is where writer’s block comes from. All ideas are good, just some fit and others don’t, but you won’t know until you pull that idea out of the box.
When writing characters start with their backgrounds; go deep, go unique. Great jewels can be uncovered in this process. Surprising revelations emerge and will profoundly alter the course of your narrative. Maybe the hero committed some grave infraction when he was younger and is hiding it and dealing with it for the rest of his life. Maybe the villain saved a cat once and that bit of info will come in handy when you’re stuck trying to find a weakness to bring him down.
This groundwork, this character research, makes up the bulk of actual writing. Thorough exploration of your characters will not only add depth to your story, it will create your story. As with the rest of writing, you are simply putting black letters on a white page: nothing is set in stone, nothing is certain, nothing is sacred. You are here to create, to experiment, to fail, and to bring forth the best fruits of your labors.
What Do They Want
If you’re reading this, you want something. If I had to guess, you want information about writing. Maybe you want to be entertained. Only you know. However, no matter your answer, you want something. Characters are no different. Be it a main character or the most unnecessary waitress in a cut scene, every simulated person in your story has a set of wants and needs that they are acting on. When you define those needs, you get depth, and when you write to those needs you get compelling narratives.
Your story is essentially the tale of what your main character wants. Once she has gotten what she always wanted, the story is over, you’re done. If the story continues after this point you will lose all narrative momentum (if you’re working on something right now that for some reason stops working towards the end, this is the reason.) The character may not know what they want, clueless protagonists have been in vogue lately, but you have to know what they want and once you know that you can keep them from getting it.
Your villain, your antagonist, also has a want that drives them. This too defines the story, as what the antagonist does to get what they want throws the known world into chaos. (Greek definitions of Antagonist and Protagonist have the Antagonist creating a disruption in the world that the Protagonist then has to fix.)
An obstacle to any character’s want creates drama.
The bigger the challenge to the want, the higher the drama, the more frequently challenges are thrown at the want, the higher the tension of the piece. The best drama has the hero’s want in direct opposition to the villain’s want.
Knowing what your characters want will further inform your story. Once you start to understand more about the actors in your narrative, you will be able to tweak variables until you get a story that resonates and feels complete.
We’re still not done though.
When is a house a home? When characters call it their own.
Settings are characters too. They need to be researched and explored just like any other character except that settings naturally don’t have motivations. (Or do they? If your story is Man Vs. Nature, such as a survival story in a desert, your setting most defiantly wants your hero dead.)
You need to understand your setting because it too defines what happens in your story. Twilight (don’t groan) would not have been possible without the Washington State setting as the low light conditions of the United State’s only rainforest allowed Edward and his vampire brethren to hide out there in the first place. Had it not been for that, Edward would have never attended High School and Bella would have never met him.
A story set in Maine will have vastly different scene opportunities and default characters as a story set in Miami.
The character research that you have already done should also inform your setting. Is your main character a fish out of water? Where did he come from then and where did he end up? A Londoner will have different difficulties adapting to Texas then he would moving to Los Angeles. Also just calling him a Londoner implies a a sophistication and, since he migrated to the US, a certain amount of wealth.
Don’t move on yet. If you’ve been following along then you probably have a few sheets worth of ideas and notes on those ideas. I also hope that you are getting a better understanding of what “pulling thread” means. Ideas are connected to other ideas and those ideas will tell you what you need to create and how you need to proceed.
Please don’t continue yet.
Spend as much time developing your characters as you can stand. Write and write about them until you are sick of it, then do it for a little while more. Detail as much as you can. Understand them. Get to know them. The better you understand your characters the more convincing your writing will be and the more alive it will feel. All too often writers skip this phase entirely, preferring to get to know their characters as they write the story. True, great surprises can happen this way, but for the majority of the time your characters will all sound the same, feel generic, and will generally act in the most cliché way.
So now that you know your characters inside and out, have their motivations and challenges in mind, and have hammered out exactly where they are and where they come from, you are ready for the next step. You just need a map to show you where you’re going.
That map has a name.