What tools do we need as writers? How are they different from the tools we needed and learned as readers?
There is a difference.
For example, readers learn that well-rounded characters are interesting, but how do you write a well-rounded character, if you don’t have an innate sense of what a well-rounded character is? Readers learn how to recognize one when they see one. But that, alone, doesn’t make you a writer of well-rounded characters, or of any character at all. What if you’ve read plenty of examples of well-rounded characters, and your characters still fall flat?
I”m trying to reconstruct what the writer tools are. I’m at that point, I guess.
Today: my current guesses as to character, setting, and problem. I’m using the Algis Budrys seven-point plot outline, for reasons I won’t get into here.
- A character
- in a setting
- with a problem
- which the character tries to solve
- only to experience unexpected failure
- followed by either victory or defeat, leaving a need for
I ended up with three traits to make a character:
- An attitude
- A role in society
- A background
A character is a fictional person with an attitude, role in society, and background. I think this is a good starting point for discussion, because by combining these three elements, you can end up with interesting characters to write about.
- A rude waitress from 1950s Alabama
- A disdainful Viscount from 1810 Yorkshire
- A dreamy-eyed cook from ancient Egypt
This should at least tell you whether you have the right name, clothes, and dialogue for the character when you start writing. You can always round out the character by making them have two conflicting elements, like “A rude but tender-hearted Asian waitress from 1950s Alabama,” or “A disdainful Viscount with a flair for engineering from 1810 Yorkshire,” or “A dreamy-eyed, pinch-fisted Greek cook from ancient Egypt.”
With setting, I narrowed it down to three (but possibly four, depending on the story) elements. You can really go nuts (and should, if that’s what you like) on working out historical fact, or rules for how things operate, or maps, or how people dress, or whether a certain word fits in the time period (my favorite), or any other of a thousand different things. But here’s my guess at the basics.
- A place
- A time
- An opinion
- (Optional) How far from reality it is.
A setting is a place and time, as framed by an opinion, possibly also by how far away from reality it is. The characters have to have an opinion on the setting, even if it’s just to take the place for granted. But there’s also room for opinions like, “I like it when magic has as much structure as technology does,” or “Sometimes the people who try to save the environment do more harm than good,” or “I’m a [insert political orientation here] and you should be, too.”
- Surreal 1950s suburban landscape
- Politically charged, magical ancient China
- Dystopian post-industrial future
- A careless day in Regency England
I think here that there is no limit to the complexity you can add, but if you want to make a “well-rounded” setting, I’d go for complexity of opinion. “Surreal but comforting 1950s suburban landscape.” “Politically charged, nostalgic, magical ancient China.” “Dystopian yet hopeful post-industrial future.” “A careless but tragic day in Regency England…the day Queen Charlotte died.”
I found breaking down problems trickier than the other two. I’m not sure I’m there yet.
- A situation
- That compels the character into action
- But there’s a caveat
I’m going to say a “problem” could be an opportunity, as long as there are issues in chasing the opportunity. Indiana Jones doesn’t have to go looking for that idol, does he? But it’s not easy. The thing that compels the character into action is some part of their character. If you like, the situation is the external goal, the thing that compels the character is their internal motivation, and the caveat is the conflict. Without the caveat, a situation can be resolved by a sufficiently competent character (I treat incompetence as a caveat).
- X can’t resist the challenge (compel) of a tomb containing a priceless antiquity (situation), but it’s guarded by countless traps (caveat).
- A bad day at the subway (sit) that makes X snap (comp) when X can’t afford to lose focus on an assassination job (cav).
- An unbearable (comp) injustice happens to X’s worst enemy (sit) when any attempt to help him will cause a war (cav).
Saying that a problem is goal, motivation, and conflict doesn’t do it for me. It doesn’t build stories for me; it only helps me analyze. Thus, this.
Shake it all about
- An unbearable injustice happens to a rude waitress from a surreal,1950s suburban Alabama’s worst enemy, and any attempt to help him will cause a war between diners.
- A dreamy-eyed cook, brought to a dystopian post-industrial future from ancient Egypt in a failed time-travel experiment, has a bad day at the subway that makes her snap when she can’t afford to lose focus on an assassination job.
- A disdainful Viscount from 1810 Yorkshire sets off on a careless day in Regency England because he can’t resist the challenge of a tomb containing a priceless antiquity, but it’s guarded by countless traps: marriageable women and their domineering aunts.
Sticking these things together: on the first one, I tried to stick together two things that matched and one that didn’t, and patched the holes to make sense (I liked this one the best). The second one, I stuck together three things that didn’t match and patched things together as little as possible (it feels like a Phil K Dick story to me, actually, too much of a muchness). The third one, I stuck together three things that matched (it sounds so plausible that I have no interest in writing it, but I wouldn’t mind reading it).
There are still a number of ways for each potential story to go; I doubt that any two writers would handle them the same. But they are story ideas, so I think I’m getting close 🙂