What makes a story?
I propose that you can boil it all down to a couple things: Character, setting, conflict, scenes/action.
A story is nothing more than a Character in a Setting. Conflict arises because that Character wants something that they don’t have (yet). Each Scene of your story has Action of some kind (be it physical, emotional, internal, etc) and all Action either increases the level of conflict or moves the character closer to their goal.
This first post is going to talk about Character and Setting. We’ll start with these two; these let us set a scene–later on we’ll talk about how to make them move.
Why is today a two-for-one? Because you can’t really talk about one without the other. Your character is a direct result of your setting. Their whole experience, outlook and mannerisms are owed to the setting that they live in. Try this thought experiment: Take a 17th century sailor and transplant them into a sci-fi space opera or a gothic romance. Sure, some of their personality traits and quirks could believably stay the same; maybe they’re still gruff and salty (forgive the stereotype and the pun) but their mannerisms and way of seeing the world would be completely different.
So what should we start with when we’re creating our story? Character or Setting?
I personally don’t think it matters. Sometimes the kernel of an idea comes to you as a Character. Sometimes it’s a Setting (or an idea—I count this as setting). The important thing to remember is that one affects the other. A Character is the way they are because of the setting. The Setting is the way it is because of many characters fiddling and mucking about.
We’re going to start with Setting and bounce back and forth, because… because we can.
This is also a good time to stop by and say hello to our good friend Genre. Why? Because Genre can help you narrow down the details of your Setting. Do you want to write a story about pirates? Cool. Is it historical fiction or romance? What about fantasy or science fiction? One genre might put us in the Atlantic in the 1800’s, or below deck with the hunky cabin boy. The others might put us in uncharted waters filled with mermaids and dragon turtles, or even in space. Very different settings and likely very different characters.
Once you have an idea about the setting, think about what type of story you want to tell. This is somewhat related to genre, but not necessarily the same thing. Is your story a romance or a heist? Is it a revenge story or an epic journey? Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Maybe you don’t know yet—that’s okay too. Do some brainstorming, pick one or two archetypal plots, or just wait and think about the character; sometimes that can help you figure out what kind of story you’re writing.
Once you have a general idea of the setting, start to think about the characters—and one in particular. This is your Main Character or your Viewpoint Character. From here on out, I’ll just reference them as Character with a capital C.
Who are they? If we continue our pirate story, is our Character a brand new cabin boy or are they a veteran sailor? Are they a lowly crew member, a captured prisoner, or the captain? Or maybe they’re a poor merchant sailor trying to sneak through pirate-infested waters. Maybe they’re a shapeshifting mermaid running away from their oppressive undersea society.
Either way, it’s okay. The takeaway for this post is that it’s okay to paint in broad strokes, at first. Once you have a general idea about your Character and your Setting, it’s time to work on some of the finer details.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to adding these fine details to Characters and Settings: First, try to think of as many details as you can before you write your story. This might include things like brainstorming worksheets that list dozens of different questions about your characters or setting. Or Second, embrace that you can always go back and add details after the fact. Sometimes you might discover a tiny (but awesome) detail later on in your story that you fall in love with, but you discover it late in a draft. It’s totally okay to go back through a draft and sprinkle in things you forgot (this may or may not be a second draft, depending on how big a detail or plot hole it turns into).
Personally, I’m not a fan of long brainstorming worksheets. Sometimes, there’s an odd, thought-provoking idea, but for the most part they’re just procrastination dressed in a worksheet.
*Insider Secret #1* — If you’re having trouble coming up with details for your character, play around with some random generators and tables. Here’s two of my favorites to get you started.
Fantasy Name Generator — Not only do they have name generators for a crap load of fantasy races, they also have other random generators, like descriptions.
DnD Speak — Not just for Dungeons and Dragons. Check out their D100 lists for good characterization, items, and worldbuilding ideas.
Alright, let’s say you’ve got your Character and your Setting. What now? Once you have those, put those suckers together and start writing your first scene!
We’ll talk about some tips and tricks for writing Scenes next time in Part 2, but for now just try writing one. Just write whatever comes to mind.
Until next time.