Anyone can write a story.
It's true, and if you've ever played pretend or with dolls or action figures when you were little, you know it.
|Illustration: © Shevi Arnold, 2003|
Unfortunately, many of us lose that ability when we turn into adults.
So how do we get it back? How can creating characters and plots become easy again?
There are two ways to write a story: you can create a plot based on a character, or you can create characters based on a plot. Like a noun and a verb are required in every complete independent sentence, a character and a plot are required in every complete independent story. If you have one without the other, you might have a vignette. What you don’t have is a story.
So how do you create a character out of a plot?
And how do you create a plot out of a character?
For the first, take your plot and ask yourself who might have the greatest need to do the things the plot requires and the hardest time doing them. Need and obstacles to achieving the thing that’s needed are great hooks. When a character has both, the reader will need to see if the character gets what he or she needs, and the reader will need to find out how the character will try to overcome those obstacles. It’s as simple as that.
For example, our plot is that someone has been murdered and someone else will figure out who did it. Okay, so our main character is probably the person who needs to solve the murder mystery. But why? Maybe our main character is a detective, and it’s the MC’s job, but that’s been done a million times before. Let’s go for something original. Maybe this person is an astronaut on a space station, and the murdered person is the only other person on the space station. Hmm… That sounds too much like a 2001: A Space Odyssey. Let’s keep looking. Maybe our main character is a kid who was taken from her foster home, and the murdered person is her abductor. She doesn’t know why she was abducted, if the murderer or the abductor were on her side, or even who she can trust. That’s good, because it’s original, the need is great, and there are a ton of obstacles.
There are millions of possible characters we can create out of this simple plot. Maybe that’s why so many murder mysteries have been written.
For the second, take your character and ask yourself what he or she needs most. Then create a story around him or her having to overcome obstacles in order to get that need fulfilled.
For example, if you created the character of Harry Potter but didn’t know what the plot of his story would be, you’d see that his greatest need was “to have a family.” You’d then have to create obstacles for him, such as his parents having been murdered, him living in the wrong world for a magical boy, the Dursleys treating him like an outcast, his parents’ murderer wanting to destroy him, and so on. The plot would be all about Harry overcoming these obstacles to eventually create a new family, the one he has in the end with Ginny, Ron and Hermione.
Is this the only possible plot for a story based on the character of Harry Potter?
Of course not. However, if you have a clear and detailed idea of who your character is and what he or she needs, the best plot for that character should be fairly obvious: create obstacles for that character and watch him or her overcome those obstacles in a quest to fulfill that need.
But what if you don’t have what you need to even start creating a story? What if you don’t even have a plot or a character?
I’m reminding of something the great playwright Neil Simon said in his autobiographical book Rewrites (I’m paraphrasing): “Writer’s block isn’t when a writer has no ideas. It’s when a writer has so many ideas and doesn’t trust himself to choose the right one.”
The answer to that is to simply stop asking yourself what the right one is and just go for it, right or not.
As in improv, your answer to any character or plot you think of should be “yes, and…”
Will it be the right one? Maybe, but probably not. The thing is, though, that if you keep answering “yes, and…” to every plot or character that pops into your head—and you keep showing the character trying desperately to overcome obstacles in a quest to achieve a great need—eventually you will discover the right one.