START WITH THE CHARACTERS
What sort of story are you writing? Does it involve action, adventure, danger? Does it evolve around everyday life and the more mundane but still important elements that readers experience in their own lives? Does it require research, as a historical, a time travel, or a paranormal tale would? Does it need a complete world or society built as science fiction and fantasy require? Even a community/town/city/country that really exists in a non-fantasy or futuristic story needs some boundaries or quirks or specifics that influence or guide or thwart your characters.
Very simply, jot down the basics here because it will come into play with what we’re centering on first – and that’s the characters.
Because the best stories flow from who the people you create are and what they want to achieve, be it material or professionally or emotionally, let’s move to these major players.
Isolate the hero, heroine and possibly, if there is one, the villain from the rest of your cast for the moment. We’re going to interview each of them separately.
I always like to begin with the one I want to spend the most time with…in my case, the hero. My love of the moment. Who is he on page one, what preconceptions might he have to feed the storyline and where does he want to end up and why? The answer cannot be “with a happily ever after” or “find the murderer” as these are foregone conclusions. Get him to be really specific.
What type of story it this? An adventure, a mystery, a romance? Is it a historical, an alternative history, a fantasy or science fiction/futuristic tale? What might your hero need to have a background in to be able to do what he has to do? Yes, this is backstory but it doesn’t have to be very detailed…at least not at this point. Might need fleshing out later, but might not. Depends on what’s needed for the story to make sense, for the hero’s actions to be logical.
In the novel writing course I taught at the college level, this was a frequent stumbling block for some of the budding authors. They missed that their main protagonist needed to have a reason why he’d ever learned how to wield a knife, disarm an attacker, drive like a stuntman during a high speed chase, or even be an over the top lover. Now’s the time to find out. Ask your hero how he knows the best way to do whatever he will need to do in the story. Think of it as a hiring interview, just don’t ask him, as personnel departments once did, what sort of kitchen appliance he sees himself as.
Once you have the answers, move on to the heroine. Then, if he or she is a major ingredient in the storyline, do an interview as well with the villain if there is one (and there doesn’t always have to be one, though they would be common in an action adventure tale – sometimes villains are situations rather than people).
To give you an example of how this could work out, here’s what I might get from a character I’m still working with, Tony Stone.
Tony says: You want what? Okay, okay. I’m a professor of history at a small geek university in Tucson (hey, I know it’s an imaginary U, but I’m sort of an invisible friend, too, aren’t I?). I met the new geology professor at the New Year’s Eve gala – we danced the tango, for which I was grateful to her since it meant I didn’t have to tango with the president’s missus. She’s a clinger. Mrs. Pres, not the geo babe. And she really is a babe. Okay, I’m off the topic, aren’t I? You shouldn’t have me lined up to be in a romance if you wanted me to keep my mind out of the bedroom. I’m not supposed to go into what happens after that dance though, am I? Just say why I’m gonna be damn well prepared to do whatever it is that needs doing. It isn’t like this sort of thing is expected of professors usually, but the notice for a hero who had a way with a dance floor, would know about old Spanish missions and legends involving them, and be able to hold his own against guys wielding knives and speaking colloquial Sonoran border slang – the local Spanish, in other words – well, it seemed this job was right up my alley. I grew up in the southwest, specialize in its history, got an ex-wife in my disreputable past, and did some really nasty tours of duty in the service before settling down behind my nice quiet little desk. I’ve got just one question: am I going to survive this damn story? It’s beginning to sound a bit dicy.
Does that help? Your turn now. While you’ll need to do all your main characters, they shouldn’t all sound alike. In a way, this is also allowing your character’s personality to be clarified. It’s why I let them talk in first person even if in the story everything will be relayed in third person.
If your story will be told through a single narrator – in 1st person or 3rd person that sticks with only one character’s point of view – include interviews with characters who make the most frequent appearances. They could be considered secondary characters but still have quite an emphasis on what will play out in the story.
In a police procedural these characters could be part of the investigative team. If the main character is a detective, among this crew could be his or her partner, boss, coroner, technology team, crime scene investigators. It could include the main character’s friends and family rather than co-workers. If there is a crime to be solved, it definitely includes the perpetrator.
What you write doesn’t have to be as long as what Tony told me here. It doesn’t have to be as detailed. What was important in the rambling that indicated his personality and an early scene in the story was that “notice for a hero who had a way with a dance floor, would know about old Spanish missions and legends involving them, and be able to hold his own against guys wielding knives and speaking colloquial Sonoran border slang.” Tony told me his qualifications: “grew up in the southwest, specialize in its history…did some really nasty tours of duty in the service.” So I gave him the job of hero. He fit what was needed for this particular story’s requirements.
That’s what your major players need to tell you. Why they can handle what you think they will have to deal with in the story you’re writing.
Excerpt from STORY SENSE STORY LOGIC
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