Getting To Character From Just About Anywhere

Let’s say you have an interesting idea for a story. Or a setting. Or a character. Or maybe just an intense image. Ursula K. Le Guin began The Left Hand of Darkness with no more than that. So did William Faulkner, with The Sound and the Fury.  Le Guin’s image was two figures hauling a sledge across a remote sheet of ice.  Faulkner’s was a little girl with muddy underpants up in a pear tree.

But now what? How to go from image — or character or setting or idea — to an actual story?

The first step is to turn whatever you have into a character. Fiction (like life) happens to people. So you need questions to ask yourself, that will give you a vivid character with many fictional possibilities.

If you’re starting from a setting ask yourself:

  • Who lives here?
  • What does she want?
  • Why does she want it?
  • How hard is this goal to reach? (It should be hard. It may be impossible. The setting should contribute to its difficulties.)
  • Who else lives here that might affect the protagonist’s pursuit of her goal?

If you’re starting from an idea (for instance, “I want to write a book about the effect of AIDS on a family,” or “I want to write a novel about a terrorist attack on the White House,” or “I want to write a romance about two people working for opposite sides on an oil-spill dispute”), ask yourself:

  • Who will be affected by this idea? Make a list.
  • Of the people on the list, which ones will be hurt the most? (These people, or their direct advocates, make good protagonists. They have the most at stake.)
  • Why is the protagonist involved? What does he want?
  • What can go wrong with this idea? (Remember, fiction is about things going wrong.)
  • How does this character react to things going wrong with his plans.

If you’re starting from an image, ask yourself:

  • Is it an image of a person? If so, who is this person? What is she doing? Why? What is she trying to accomplish? What are her emotions at this particular moment? Why?
  • If there’s no person in the image (a deserted Aztec pyramid, a jeweled music box that plays a lost Mozart song), who can you put there? Who is interested in this image? Why? What does she want? What is she trying to accomplish? Why?

Learn more about novel writing in Advanced Novel Writing

Whether you write short fiction, nonfiction, memoir or poetry, chances are there is a novel yearning to get out. The idea of actually writing something as long and complex as a novel can seem overwhelming. You can set your novel free – by developing a plan with someone who has successfully negotiated this literary minefield.

In this course you will learn:

  • The components of a completely developed novel idea
  • Character building and the selection of both your viewpoint character(s) and main characters
  • Functions of setting, and how to use setting to generate plot
  • To use dramatic and nondramatic scenes
  • To keep readers holding on until the very end.

Click here to learn more about Advanced Novel Writing!

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