FAIRFIELD WRITER’S GROUP:
WRITING EXERCISE FOR OCTOBER 2010
Generating Story Ideas starting from Character
The blank page can be daunting! Writers often complain that they simply don’t know where to start─how to find an idea for a story.
Stories can begin from either plot, message, or character.
Beginning from plot:
A story that begins from plot is one that starts with a the writer having a fixed idea of what is going to happen in the story. While this is a valid way to begin, writers risk populating such stories with puppets created to serve the plot. If a character is invented merely to fill a purpose in the plot, that character may not be credible, or may be uninteresting.
John Grisham’s novels generally begin from plot, but succeed because the storyline is genuinely breathtaking. The enthusiastic young lawyers who appear are there to drive the story along, but Grisham usually succeeds in making them reasonably believable, and giving them a personality readers will react to.
Beginning from message:
A story that begins from message is one that seeks to convey a social or political message─a story with a moral, or written to urge action or change thinking. Such stories can have great plots and characterization, but there are risks that interest and/or credibility will be lost in a sermon!
Examples of books that began from a message are State of Fear by Michael Crichton (described by some as a ‘thinly veiled manifesto for the anti-global warming lobby’), and Jurassic Park, which highlighted the ethics of zoos, genetic engineering and environmentalism in what was, nevertheless, a great story.
Beginning from character:
Many of the most successful stories started with character. Character-based stories are memorable when the character really comes to life in the reader’s mind, and succeed when the character is so well defined that the plot can only take one direction─a direction consistent with the decision this character would logically make in the situation in which the author has placed him or her.
Many successful series are written based on a character, and conceived by placing that character in a situation and testing his or her response. One of my favourite examples of this is Agatha Christie’s series of Poirot mysteries. Readers find themselves able to predict the reaction or response of their ‘passionate about order’ egg-headed friend and would quickly identify any error were the author to make one.
Enid Blyton’s “Noddy” stories are among the more successful character-based stories for young children, and many older readers will recall the “Smiley” series. Of course most of us know Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein. And more recently, Harry Potter has made himself very well known to readers and helped his creator achieve outstanding writing success.
Do you begin your stories from plot, character or message?
When writers create a character, some document every aspect of the character’s physical appearance background, mannerisms, thoughts, and personality. Others focus specifically on the traits that will be referred to in the story. Both approaches are valid, but if you want a story to be credible and interesting, it is wise to ensure that you know your central characters intimately─inside and out─and that they are people you can successfully ‘bring to life’ in the story. They should be people your readers will respond to emotionally.
There are books and software programs that purport to assist characterization by personality profiling. Characters can be created using much the same process as a psychologist uses to conduct examination. While such programs and methods can be helpful, authors can be equally successful creating exciting and believable characters based on real people they know, characters from a book they read, or their own observations and imagination. Once you have created a character, you can begin a character-based story by putting your character in a situation and observing how he/she responds, or by asking your character questions.
Begin with someone you saw in a coffee shop or walking through the park. Where did they come from? Why are they there? Where are they going? What are they carrying, and why? A man might be carrying a briefcase or a woman a handbag. What is in it? Someone may be approaching to meet your character. Why?
Choose one of the following approaches to creating an exciting, believable character and, in no more than 1000 words, tell a story that reveals your character’s unique personality to your reader.
1. Start with a picture of people─beautiful, ugly, dull, or interesting. Ask yourself who they are, how they got to where they are in the picture, why they are there, where they are going,what relationship they have to each other, how they met, if they like each other. Write a story about the people in your picture. (Don’t forget to bring the picture to the meeting along with your assignment!)
2. Take a character you know from a favourite book or one you have written about at some time and ask yourself what are their best and worst memories. How did those memories affect them? What triggers their memories─a word or phrase, a song, a smell, a place?
Write a story about something that happened as a result of something triggering a memory.
3. Look for someone in a coffee shop or store or walking along the road carrying a bag. Imagine that character reaching a table and emptying the contents of their bag onto it. What comes out? Why did they have those things in their bag? Ask your character to tell your reader which object is most important to them and why. (You will need to write this story in the first person, as if the character is speaking to your reader.)
4. Think of someone who made a strong impression on you. Why? What was it about them that made them interesting or memorable? Write a story (it can be truth or fiction) that reveals why they made an impression and what you will remember about them in years to come.
- Fairfield Writers Group-Queensland
- Fairfield, Queensland, Australia
- Fairfield Writers Group is a mix of beginner and experienced writers who meet the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at the Brisbane City Council Library in Fairfield Gardens Shopping Centre, Fairfield road, Fairfield, Queensland. Our passion is writing and we work hard at our craft. Our aim is to encourage, support and help each other to reach new heights in our writing. New members are always made welcome and usually whisked off to the local coffee shop at the end of meetings for sustenance and socialisation with the rest of the crew.
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