Tuesday, May 11, 2021

3 Shortcuts to Character-Driven Stories

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Characters drive the plot through their actions, and some drive it more than others. Laurence MacNaughton shares three shortcuts for developing character-driven fiction.

Believe it or not, your characters can offer you a wealth of story ideas. If you're feeling stuck about what to write next, don't worry. No matter what genre you write, character-driven stories are always a hit with readers. With a little brainstorming, you can generate endless ideas from any of your main characters. Here's how to do it.

Step 1: Dig down deep into your character.

Start by writing down a few important details about your main character. These can be any facts you can think of, as long as they are important enough to have an impact on the story.

We aren't looking for long paragraphs of exposition, here. Short phrases are fine.

Here are some things to consider. Don't worry about trying to answer all of these questions. Just browse through them, pick a few and jot down a handful of ideas.
  • What do they do for a living?
  • Who or what is constantly giving them trouble?
  • How would you describe their personality?
  • What do they privately struggle with?
  • What do they care about?
  • What do they fear or worry about?
  • Do they have a personal rule about something?
  • Do they have a reputation for something?
  • Are they hiding a secret?
  • Did something traumatic happen in the past?
  • Who is the most important person in their life?
  • Do they have any enemies?
  • Do they have any obligations?
  • What makes them stand out in a crowd?
  • What is their most important possession?
  • Where do they live?
  • What do they do for fun?
  • What do they want more than anything?
  • What have they always been afraid to try?
  • What's missing in their life?

Here's an example. In my novel A Kiss Before Doomsday, I introduce a character named Feral. Here are a few quick details about him:
  • werewolf shifter
  • tribal tattoos on his huge biceps
  • always chatting up the ladies

Does this sound overly simplistic? Don't worry. We don't need to make this too complicated. That will happen in a moment.

(Here’s more with An Exercise in Layering & Depth: 25 Questions to Ask Your Characters)

Step 2: Look for potential problems.

Read through your notes again and pick out your absolute favorite detail. It can be anything that jumps out at you. Don't worry, there's no wrong answer here.

Now, think about the implications of that detail and see if there's any way to use it to create problems for your character.

Here are some brainstorming questions to get you started:
  • Does this detail suggest a conflict with another character?
  • Does this detail imply something about your character's history? What indelible event happened to them before the start of the story? How could this come back to haunt them?
  • Does this detail imply that the character has a connection with something important in your story, or a relationship to someone? How could this cause trouble for the character?
  • Does this detail imply that there is someone or something that is very important to the character? Who or what is it? Now, is there somebody or something in your story that could threaten that?
  • Does this detail give you any ideas for potential threats to this character or someone they care about?
  • Who could have a problem with the character because of this detail?
  • Who else cares about this detail, and how could their reaction be bad for your character?

Let's look back at our example character, Feral. For one thing, he's always chatting up the ladies. If we look for potential problems that stem from that, we might end up with:
  • He could get into serious hot water from chatting up someone else's girlfriend.
  • He might have a string of bad relationships in his past, and an ex could show up to complicate his life at the worst possible moment.
  • He could set his sights on a new romantic interest, only to find himself caught up in a complicated love triangle.
  • He could find himself falling in love with "the one" and end up fighting his feelings, because he doesn't want to believe he's ready to settle down.

That's four plot ideas right there, all from just one of his details. See? You don't need much to launch some new story ideas.

If you find yourself struggling with one of the details, that's okay. Just set it aside and pick a different detail. You only need to generate a few ideas to get your story going.

(Here’s more with Four Pillars Linking Character to Plot)

Step 3: Repeat with another main character.

Do this exercise again with another main character. And as you're doing it, look for connections back to the first character. That gives you new ways to cause conflict between your characters. The more conflict you can think up, the more interesting your story will become.

For example, what happens when Feral puts the moves on another main character? What if she's already in a relationship?

Or worse, what if she just broke up with another character, who tries to come back just as Feral makes his move? What happens if this ex-boyfriend is not only the jealous type, but also vengeful and incredibly dangerous?

And what happens if these two guys are about ready to kill each other, when suddenly an outside threat forces them to work together and team up to save the world?

In case you're wondering, all of these things actually do happen over the course of the series. And they all stem from the simple fact that Feral is constantly chatting up the ladies. One little detail like that can give you endless story possibilities.

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Make Your Characters Hate You (And Why You Should))

Now it's your turn.

Readers may not remember the entire plot of your book, but they will always remember your characters. And if you can make your plots naturally emerge from the characters are, your storage will instantly become much more memorable.

Once you've tried this exercise, let me know how it goes. Leave a comment below or contact me on my author website at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About It Happened One Doomsday

Magic is real. Only a handful of natural-born sorcerers can wield its arcane power against demons, foul creatures, and the forces of darkness. These protectors of the powerless are descendants of an elite order. The best magic-users in the world.

Unfortunately, Dru isn’t one of them.

Sure, she’s got a smidge of magical potential. She can use crystals to see enchantments or brew up an occasional potion. And she can research practically anything in the library of dusty leather-bound tomes she keeps stacked in the back of her little store. There, sandwiched between a pawn shop and a 24-hour liquor mart, she sells enough crystals, incense, and magic charms to scrape by. But everything changes the day a handsome mechanic pulls up in a possessed black muscle car, his eyes glowing red.

Just being near Greyson raises Dru’s magical powers to dizzying heights. But he’s been cursed to transform into a demonic creature that could bring about the end of the world.

Then she discovers that the Harbingers, seven fallen sorcerers, want to wipe the planet clean of humans and install themselves as new lords of an unfettered magical realm. And when they unearth the Apocalypse Scroll, the possibility of a fiery cosmic do-over suddenly becomes very real.

There’s only one chance to break Greyson’s curse and save the world from a fiery Doomsday – and it’s about to fall into Dru’s magically inexperienced hands....

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  1. Excellent advice, thank you.

  2. This was a great post and actually what I need right now as I have to turn in some series ideas to an agent. Thanks. My mind started working as I was reading even before I started the exercises. Can't wait to see what develops!