TO GET IDEAS FOR CHARACTERS, you don’t have to go searching until you find the Holy Grail. There’s no mystical process involved. All you have to do is turn your mind into a net for ideas, always casting out into the waters of life and literature, and gathering in the ideas that are there waiting to be noticed.
Because, you see, ideas are cheap. They’re around you all the time. You can’t get through a day without running into hundreds, even thousands of ideas for characters or stories.
Not me, you say?
Yes, you, says me.
If you don’t notice these ideas, it’s because you aren’t paying attention. You let them slide on by without ever realizing they were ideas at all.
So let me take you through some of those sources of ideas, so you can see how an idea net can snag characters and get them to where you can interrogate them, whip them into shape – bring them to life.
IDEAS FROM LIFE
Oh, yes, you know all about mimesis – how art is supposed to derive from life. But not your life. Nothing happens around you that isn’t ordinary, dull, uninteresting.
How wrong you are. What seems ordinary to you will seem strange to someone else. Furthermore, something that seems ordinary to me will seem strange when you describe it, because you’ll see it from a different perspective.
I think immediately of a couple of fantasy novels I read that concern some ordinary teenagers in the hill country of Georgia. These teenagers get involved with visiting elven-folk, or Sidhe, who think of America as the magical land of Tir-Nan-Og. The effect is somewhat like the Ilaid, with godlike beings manipulating human affairs for their own benefit. Not until I read the second book, however, did I realize the author didn’t seem to understand what was really interesting about these stories. The author, to whom the Georgia setting was ordinary, was fascinated with the Sidhe, and in the second volume had a lot of the movement of the story take place in their world. But to me, the Sidhe lived in a stock fantasy Neverland, a place I’ve seen so often in fantasy fiction that it bores me silly. What I loved was the part of the story that took place in Georgia, showing people who were at once believable and strange. What seemed like ho-hum stuff to the author was fascinating to me.
So when you’re looking for characters, cast your net first in your own life – the people you see, the people you know, the person you are.
Observation of Strangers
Some writers have resorted to carrying a notebook or tape recorder with them to record observations or snatches of dialogue. You’ll be at the gas station, standing in line at the grocery store, in a waiting room before an appointment, and you’ll hear someone tell a story or express an attitude or perform some act that strikes you as funny or annoying or weird – or exactly typical. Such an observation can be the root of a fascinating character.
For instance, I was recently at the local Big Star supermarket during the after-work rush and needed to check out quickly. I got in the shortest line, immediately behind a woman with only a few items in her desk, thinking that she wouldn’t take long. But while we waited in line, her husband and three children all arrived with armloads of other items. OK, I’ll tell the truth: there was only one kid, and the father and the kid each had only one or two things to add. But the minute I caught on to what was happening, I started exaggerating it in my own mind. The idea net was operating without my even realizing it. And a little exaggeration sure made for a better story, didn’t it?
Anyway, the result was a family I’m going to use in the story sometime. I’m not sure of their motivation yet, but I think it has to do with one parent’s obsession with avoiding wasted time – or perhaps it’s the family’s cooperative answer to the problem of doing housework when both parents work and all the kids are in school. Anyway, they divide up the grocery list on the way to the store. Each person gets a section of the store. Mom gets a cart and stands in line. Each person has time for exactly two armloads of stuff before she gets to the checker. If anybody fails to get his whole list, he suffers deep embarrassment at the meal where that item was supposed to be on the menu.
This isn’t a story yet, of course. It’s just a comic family situation. But I can imagine using, as my main character, one child who is deeply embarrassed about this whole process. But then, maybe I’ll give it a half-twist and write about the kid who thought this system up and believes the others don’t do it half well enough. I might have the family members compete with each other to see who can get the most items on the list – and then have my main character always win by scanning other shoppers’ carts as he scoots through the store, snatching items he needs from their carts instead of having to search them out on the shelves. There are a lot of character possibilities from that one rather than ordinary observation.
However I end up using the idea – if I use it at all – it came from watching people converge on a cart in the grocery store.
Remember, though, that the words you hear or the event you observe are rarely usable exactly as they happened. You don’t have to exaggerate as much as I did in this case, but you do need to demand more from the idea than the plain facts.
When somebody says something intriguing, you need to ask yourself why somebody might say something like that, why someone might have that attitude. Don’t settle for your first guess as to motive. An interesting observation is nothing more than local colour, a bit of background – until you wring from it all its story and character potential.
People You Know
I know a lot of authors who use their friends or family members as models for characters in their stories. I’ve occasionally done it myself.
And why not? You know these people. You know their quirky way of talking, the odd things they do, their virtues and weaknesses. Besides, it’s easier to simply describe someone you know than to invent someone new.
All true. But let me give you a few warnings, too. There are two categories of Things That Can Go Wrong.
- Taking characters “from life” can lead to bad fiction.
You may not know these people half so well as you think you do. After all, you are never inside their memory, inside their soul – you don’t really know why they do the things they do. You know why they say they do them; you know your own guesses. But when it comes to writing your character, you have to know a lot more than you’ll ever know about your friends or family. So it isn’t just a matter of copying. You’ve still got to do a lot of invention before a real-life character – even one you know well – is ready to hold down a job in your fiction.
Also, when you use real-life incidents, it’s easy to forget that your readers don’t know that the incident really happened to a friend of yours. If the event is particularly strange or intriguing, your readers are going to need some serious justification before they believe it. You, however, may not realize this, and so you’ll expend no effort trying to show how such a thing could happen, or justifying why your character does what she does. The result is that at exactly the points where your story is most factual, it will be least believable.
Remember that believability in fiction doesn’t come from the facts – what actually happened. It comes from the readers’ sense of what is plausible – what is likely to happen. And the further you stray from the plausible, the more time you have to spend justifying the event, piling up details to show the process, explaining motivation and cause and result, so that the reader will believe. “But it really happened like that” is no defense in fiction.
- Taking characters “from life” can lead to personal problems.
If your friends or family members recognize themselves, you can be in deep trouble, and not just when you do a hatchet job on them. You may even think you’ve treated them “nicely” or (shudder) “fairly.” But remember, all the time you’ve known them, they didn’t know they were being “interviewed” or “filmed” for inclusion in your fiction. They may have confided things in you – hopes and fears, memories and motives – that were just between friends. When you put them in the pages of a story or book, they have every right to feel betrayed.
Asking their permission first can be even worse. Then they start to feel a proprietary interest in the story; they call you up with new reminiscences. You’ll very soon find yourself having to say, “I’m sorry, I’m only using a few bits from your life, and I just don’t need any more.” Worse, when the story comes out you’ll get the Phone Call: “I can’t believe you shoed me doing that. I never would have done that.” Very few friendships can stand the strain of an author-character relationship. The whole point of being an author is that your characters do what you tell them to do. Your friends and family just don’t follow that pattern.
The solution to all this is simple. Use your family and friends as the starting points for characters – but then use the full process of interrogation to transform them from the people you think you know into the characters you really know. In other words, make new people out of the old ones.
Then discard all the extraneous details. Just because you’re modeling the character on your sister doesn’t mean that the character has to look like her, or have the same career, or the same taste in clothes, or the same childhood experiences. Jettison anything about the real-life model that isn’t essential to the new character, and disguise everything else that you can.
Then if your sister or father or friend later asks you, “Was this character supposed to be me?” your answer can be, in complete honesty, “I’m glad he seemed so real that you thought he was like you. But you’re much nicer (prettier/more sincere/gutsier) than that character.” If you’ve taken bits out of your friend’s life that can’t be fully disguised, you can say, “I might have taken some bits out of the lives of people that I know – that sort of thing can’t be helped, it happens without a writer even noticing – but the characters are meant to be themselves. None of them are modelled on any particular person.” If you have done the job of fully inventing your characters, this statement will always be true.
I learned all these lessons the hard way. When I was in college, I wrote a play based on my mother’s family. My only source was Mother’s own reminiscences of childhood and adolescence, told to her children we grew up. I loved the stories – and besides, I had been told, time and again, “Write what you know.”
The result was a pretty good little play, given the state of my skills at the time. But when my mother saw it, she was aghast. She made me promise not to invite any of her brothers or sisters to see it.
Why? There was no villains in the story. Everyone was sympathetically portrayed.
The problem was that my mother knew something I had not thought of: She and her siblings weren’t likely to remember these events quite the same way. Even though these things had all happened more than thirty years before, feelings would be hurt, questions would be raised, and old family tensions would be revived.
And the funny thing was that the best things about these characters were not the elements I took from Mom’s stories. The best things were the motives and misunderstandings, the dialogue and the details that I had invented to flesh out the tales.
That is always true. Modelling characters on life is not a method, it’s a starting point. The characters who come to life on the page or on the stage are the ones that have passed through the storyteller’s imagination. Your readers already “know” people as well as real people ever know each other. They turn to fiction in order to know people better than they can ever know them in real life. If your story tells them nothing more about people than they already know, you’ve let your audience down. By sticking to the facts, you cheat them out of the chance to learn the truth.
OK, you’ve never murdered somebody, and your character is a murderer. Does that mean you’ve got to go interview people on death row in order to find out how they think?
No. Of course you can interview them, and you might get some interesting insights – though all the warnings about modelling characters on friends and family also apply to modelling characters on interview subjects. There’s an added problem, too: Interview subjects never tell the truth. Oh, they may think they’re telling the truth, but in fact their stories and statements are altered by the fact that they’re telling them to someone else. They want you to think of them a certain way, and so they’ll emphasize certain things and leave out others that don’t make the right impression. If you believe everything you’re told in an interview, your story may be less true than if you never interviewed a soul. At best, an interview will be a starting point – you will still go through the whole process of character invention.
There is one person you can always interview, however, who will tell you much more of the truth than others ever will – yourself. You can imagine what it would take to get you to behave in a certain way?
So what if you’ve never murdered somebody? Haven’t you ever been blindingly angry? Haven’t you ever longed for cold revenge? You’ve felt all the emotions, all the motives. All you have to do is imagine those feelings and needs being even stronger, or imagine your inhibition against violence being even weaker.
Was it a crime of passion? Then imagine what kind of provocation it would take for you to be filled with murderous rage, and then find the sort of provocation that would get that same reaction in your character.
Was it a calculated murder in order to win some objective? Then figure out which of your own attitudes you’d have to change before you’d come to regard murdering somebody as a reasonable way to get him out of the way in order to achieve your goal. What if you were fighting for some desperately important cause? What if you had grown up in a situation where killing was commonplace? What if you had cause to think other people were all beneath consideration?
What if you just can’t imagine yourself doing something? Then, instead of trying to think of what it would take to get you to do what your character does, think of something you actually have done that is like what the character does.
For instance, Michael Bishop faced this problem in his brilliant 1988 novel Unicorn Mountain, in which one character, Bo, is a young homosexual who is dying of AIDS. Bo and another character are at a motel swimming pool when three muscular young men come to swim. Bo might have had any of several responses: envy at their health and strength; resentment that these boorish young heterosexual men don’t have to pay a price like AIDS for their sexual activities. But what Bishop chose to show was simple lust. These three young swimmers had attractive, muscular bodies. Having AIDS hadn’t stopped Bo from being a homosexual. He still looked at these young men with desire.
I believe that Bishop, who is not a homosexual, based this scene primarily on analogy. What is it like to be a homosexual with AIDS? This question surely came up again and again as he worked on Unicorn Mountain. I think it led him to this analogy: It is very much like being a heterosexual with a fatal disease that has cut you off from having sex with anyone, but hasn’t yet made you impotent or weakened your desire.
Bishop knew what we all know, that swimsuits reveal people’s bodies a great deal more than business suits do, and that nowadays swimsuits are designed to emphasize sexual attractiveness. It just happened that Bo was interested in and aroused by the men at the pool. Yet he was not affected the way a woman is usually affected when watching men in swimsuits. He was affected as heterosexual men are affected when they watch women in swimsuits.
Complicated? Yes. And yet it led Bishop to write a quiet but startling scene that rang true – with me, at least. I did not realize that I had been asking the question: What is it like to be a homosexual? But when Bishop showed me this scene, showed his character’s attitude toward these young men, I realized the question had been answered, at least in part – and that it was an important question, one that would matter to me even after the story was over, because it gave me a new way of looking at and understanding other human beings. In other words, Bishop had achieved one of the primary purposes of fiction.
So if you can’t imagine doing what your character must do, then compare that act with something you have done. Is my character going to kill somebody to get her out of the way? Then I might think of a time when I carelessly disregarded someone else’s feelings because I was rushing to get a job done. I lost a friendship. I didn’t kill anyone, but I did feel that same single-minded focus on my goal that left no room for regarding another person’s needs. In my mind, that former friend had ceased to be a person. And, remembering that painful event in my past, I can then, by analogy, show how my character completely disregards the value of other people’s lives.
I’ve come to this last, because this is a deep well, but one that can quickly become exhausted. Whether you mean to or not, you will constantly draw on your own memory for incidents and characters in your fiction. In fact, all these other sources of characters arise out of memory – your memory of your friends and family, your memory of strangers.
All these memories are distorted by time or your own needs and perceptions. No less distorted is your memory of yourself – what you did, what you meant to do, what caused you to do things, what the results of your actions turned out to be. Yet, distorted or not, your memory of yourself is the clearest picture you will ever have of what a human being is and why people do what they do. You are the only person you will ever know from the inside, and so, inevitably, when your fiction shows other characters from the inside, you will reveal yourself.
This will happen unconsciously, whether you plan it or not. Sometimes it will startle, even embarrass you, when you look back on a story you’ve written and suddenly realize how much you have confessed without even meaning to. I once handed the manuscript of early chapters of one of my novels to a friend and fellow magazine editor. She read it, and when she gave it back, among her comments was this one: “It’s an interesting exploration of self-alienation. This guy really hates his own body.”
I smiled and nodded, as if that had been precisely my intent. But the fact was that I had no idea that such a theme was emerging in the story. Yet I knew at once that she was right, that without even meaning to, I had created a character whose situation exactly mirrored the cause of many of my deepest injuries and much of my personal anguish during my teenage years. It made it hard to go on writing the novel, in fact, because I was afraid that my novel was exposing more of me to my audience than I ever intended. In fact, it was. But I finished it and published it, and despite many flaws, the book remains one of the truest stories I’ve told.
Whatever obsessions you have, whatever memories are most important to you, either negatively or positively, they are going to show up in your work no matter what you do.
However, just because your memory will be an unconscious source of characterization doesn’t mean you can’t also mine it consciously. When I needed to show a child character’s attitude toward his older brother and sister, I remembered how I felt toward my older brother and sister when I was little; I even used incidents that showed what those relationships were like. In no sense were the characters of the brother and sister based on my own brother and sister – but the child character was based on my memory of what it was like being myself at that age. I know far more about myself than I’ll ever know about any other human being – it only makes sense that my most truthful material will usually come from my own recollections.
The danger of delving into your own memory is that you’ve only lived one life. You’re going to keep coming up with the same incidents and attitudes over and over again, without even realizing it. This is where personal clichés come from constantly mining the same spot in memory, the way a child will keep picking at the same sore. You have to make a conscious effort to keep from remembering the same things in the same way. In other words, even when you take a character directly out of yourself at some particular time in your life or in some particular situation, you still have to invent that character – ask the causal questions, exaggerate, twist.
Finding “New” Memories
What I’m about to suggest smacks of self-psychoanalysis, and for all I know it may have therapeutic value. But I suggest that one way for you to discover good characters is to search randomly through your memory, just as you move randomly through the world around you, with your idea net extended.
The way you do this is to pick some arbitrary starting point. It might be a point in time: seventh grade, for instance. What school were you in in seventh grade? Who was your homeroom teacher? Who were your other teachers? I immediately remember Mr. Arella, the science teacher – a man I haven’t though to of in twenty years, yet his name was there, waiting to be dredged up. His was the last class of the day for me, and I recall staying after school the first few days, talking to him, asking questions. Partly it was because I really was interested in science, but mostly it was because I was waiting for my mom to pick me up – I couldn’t walk home carrying my tuba. By the end of the second day, he started calling me his “lab assistant” and talking about how I’d stay after school and help him clean test tubes and jars – not at all what I had in mind. I soon stopped staying after class; but I remember that later in the school year, I heard him refer to someone else as his lab assistant, whereupon he affixed me with a steady gaze for a few moments before moving on to talk about something else. Without meaning to, I had apparently hurt his feelings or let him down somehow – though he had never asked me whether I wanted to be his lab assistant.
I also remember that in the encyclopedia I happened upon a description of how to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen using an electric current. I talked to Mr. Arella about it, telling him what I had figured out about how to conduct the experiment. He encouraged me; I went to a great deal of trouble to find batteries, strips of copper, and a way to hold everything in place while hydrogen arose from the water to fill an overturned jar.
I set up the experiment for the first time in front of the class – it never occurred to me to rehearse in private. The experiment didn’t work. I don’t know why, and neither did Mr. Arella, but we never got that little puff of an explosion from a lighted match that tells you isolated hydrogen was present. It was frustrating and embarrassing.
But that was nothing compared to the frustration when, a month or so later, he got to the electrolysis section in the textbook, opened the cupboard, and took out a complete prefabricated electrolysis device. All the elements were there, professionally designed, preassembled, and ready to use. After class I demanded to know why he had let me go to all that trouble when he had the experiment already in hand. “I wanted you to learn from your own experience,” he said. A noble thought. But at the time all I could see was that he had let me waste a ridiculous amount of time and caused me much public embarrassment, when he could have said, “Want to see electrolysis work? I’ve got the whole setup right here in the cupboard.”
My only consolation was that his professional setup didn’t make any more hydrogen than my amateurish one did.
All these memories came flooding back the moment I typed the words “seventh grade” into my computer. Are any of them usable for a story? Probably not directly. I have no idea how interesting this story is, but I suspect your eyes were beginning to glaze over before I had finished. Still, if I interrogate the character of Mr. Arella – or of myself – I may find an interesting story there:
I didn’t do anything to “get even” with Mr. Arella, but what about a student character who did plot vengeance?
Or what if the teacher character has a different motive for letting the student embarrass himself? What if he’s getting even for the student’s failure to serve as his lab assistant?
Or what if I choose a different experiment, one that causes even more embarrassment than simple failure?
Or what if I change the relationship and make it a husband and wife? The wife is going into the same line of work as the husbands; she gets a terrific idea and sets to work on it. He encourages her, and she goes to great effort, but fails. Only later does she discover that he knew exactly how to do the whole job, even had key pieces of equipment or information that might have allowed her to succeed. When she confront him, he says, “I figured you’d want to do it on your own.”
“I didn’t care about doing it on my own! I cared about doing it right, and you could have helped me do that!”
“What kind of career is it if your husband steps in and makes it easy for you?”
“I put you through college, you jerk! What kind of education would you had if I weren’t the kind of wife who stepped in and made it easy for you? People in business sometimes help each other. Nice people do, anyway. They don’t let somebody drown while they’ve got a life preserver in their hands!”
“OK, I’m sorry, I made a mistake!”
“It wasn’t a mistake. You meant me to fail. You wanted me to blow it, because if I did it right then I’d be a threat to you!”
“Oh, I see, I’m not just a husband who made a mistake, suddenly I’m a symptom of the whole male conspiracy against women. The trouble is, if I had helped you, that would also be part of the male conspiracy against women, since I would have been plotting to prove to you that you couldn’t succeed without my help!”
And so on. This relationship has some story potential, though the scene itself is far too abstract to be useful – real people don’t stick to the subject so relentlessly while they argue. This scene would never end up in a story, but these characters, this relationship, might. And if such a story ever comes to be, who would guess that it emerged from the incident with Mr. Arella and the electrolysis experiment, which came to mind solely because I was randomly exploring through times and places in my memory.
IDEAS FROM THE STORY
As you work on a story, it will suggest characters to you – as long as you know how to look for them.
Who Must Be There?
Let’s say you’re telling the story of a young princess who’s being held captive in the top of a tower. If fairy tales don’t appeal to you, update it: A young girl who has been kidnapped off the streets of New York and is being held captive in an abandoned building. Or if melodrama doesn’t appeal to you, a girl who has to spend the summer with somebody unpleasant while her parents are off on a long working vacation in Australia.
The story idea itself will imply certain characters. Since the girl is being held somewhere against her will, there has to be a person who is holding her – a “villain” who has caused her confinement. Also, there must be some people she was kidnapped from. If she’s a princess, by implication there must be a king or queen – or both – who want her back. Or perhaps she feels that her parents wanted to be rid of her. Either way, one or both parents must figure into the story.
If she’s staying with relatives, then those characters must be added as well. A bossy aunt? A boring uncle? Or, more sinisterly, an aunt who is always off “shopping,” while the uncle stays around home like a couch potato, sleeping in front of the television; only it turns out that the uncle is mixing up hallucinogenic chemicals in the basement all night, while the aunt makes drug deliveries during the day. No, no, you say – you’re getting melodramatic again. All right, the aunt is always away because she’s supporting the family, and the uncle is every bit as lazy and dim-witted as he seems. He’s even dumb enough to think that his young niece will appreciate suggestions for a relationship closer than nepotism.
Whether any of these ideas interest you, you can see how the process works. Once you know the story roles that must be filled, you can use the process we’ve already talked about to create interesting, well-rounded characters for those roles.
Who Might Be There?
Besides the people who must be there because of the story, there are also characters who might be present simply because of the setting. Let’s take the girl living with her aunt and uncle for the summer. They might have children. Younger ones that the girl is required to tend? Older ones, who exclude her from their good times or otherwise make her miserable? One exactly her age who resents having her there – or who is horrible and boring and wants to be with her all the time?
The aunt and uncle must live in a place, of course, so is it a town? Are there neighbours? A local 7-11 store, with a clerk she befriends, or kids who hang out playing pinball or video games there?
Maybe the aunt and uncle live at the beach – there are always people coming to the beach. Could she meet an interesting person who takes an early morning walk along the beach every day?
She came from somewhere, so could she be writing letters to a friend back home? Trying to carry on a long-distance romance with a boyfriend who is actually dating her best friend now?
Could she be attending summer school? There are teachers and students there. Or maybe she gets a summer job – proofreading at the local weekly newspaper? Then there’ll be an editor, a typesetter who might resent all her corrections, an eccentric society columnist, maybe another kid who doubles as delivery boy and cub reporter.
Or maybe the aunt and uncle live on a farm, and there are some migrant workers who come for the midsummer cherry picking. Or maybe they live in the mountains, and she meets a poacher, or a forest ranger, or some interesting hikers – or some dangerous ones.
This process is a simple one, but it’s amazing how many writers forget to do it. All you have to do is take your eyes off the main characters long enough to see who else is nearby. Most of the characters you discover this way will remain minor ones, or even background characters. Still, by using them you’ll enrich the story and make it more real.
These other characters will also add possibilities for conflict or complication, or sources of help for the main characters. And some of them will become so interesting that you’ll have to move them into major roles in the story after all, even though they were never part of your original plan.
But if you don’t look to see who might be there, you’ll never find these people, and your story will be the poorer for it.
Who Has Been There?
Even though your main focus will be on the characters who are present in the story, it’s also important to look into the story’s past to find the characters who are no longer around, but who still helped shape the characters who are present. So often we see stories with heroes who seemed to come from nowhere – they never remember anybody who isn’t present, never meet anybody they knew from long before, never even refer to parents or old jobs or anyone else. Yet in real life you are constantly remembering people who aren’t present, bumping into old acquaintances, and responding to present situations in ways that clearly grow out of the old relationships.
When the teenage girl in our story becomes friends with the funny-looking clerk at the 7-11, does she gradually and uncomplicatedly fall in love with him? Or does he remind her of a slick exploitative guy she knew at school back home? Maybe she’s trying to stay faithful to her boyfriend back home, so she has constant thoughts of her boyfriend even as she gets more and more attracted to the 7-11 clerk. Those guys from back home are never “present” in the story, and yet her relationship with them is very important.
Or perhaps as she tries to get along with her aunt and uncle, she finds that the real difficulty is her long-dead grandmother – the mother of her father and her uncle. At first the girl will agree with the grandmother’s assessment of the uncle, especially because the uncle clearly feels a strong antipathy toward the girl. Gradually, though, she’ll come to appreciate some aspects of her uncle’s character that neither her father nor her grandmother ever saw. In fact, the story might come to focus on the relationship between the girl and her dead grandmother, with the girl becoming angrier and angrier at a women who exists now only in her memory. Finally, she has it out with her uncle, in a complicated scene in which she is angry at him for acting out the grandmother’s image of him. It might end up transforming both of them.
Yet that story would be impossible to tell if we hadn’t first wondered about characters who might have been there in the story’s past, but who are not physically present in the story.
SERVANTS OF THE IDEA
Often a story emerges, not from characters or events, but from an idea that you want to put across. Maybe you’re concerned about the danger of pollution, the arms race, the escalating cost of medical care, or the unfairness of American immigration policy. Maybe you worry about abortion, women’s rights, racism, or poverty. Maybe you want to speak for disarmament, more humane prisons, justice for an oppressed people, or the rights of intelligent marine mammals.
All of these are causes that many wise and concerned people find to be worthy and important. But the first thing you must decide is whether to write a polemic essay or a story.
These are not mutually exclusive forms. That is, if you decide to write an essay – for a newspaper’s op-ed page, a pamphlet, or even a book-length essay – you will find that stories are effective tools in persuading people to pay attention. No amount of philosophizing about the rights of dolphins will have as much effect on readers as a simple story of the life of one dolphin – his birth, upbringing, family life, playfulness, all leading to his senseless drowning when he is caught in a tuna net. One story is worth a thousand abstractions or statistics, when it comes to having an emotional impact on people.
And if you decide to write a story, this doesn’t mean you can’t also make your point.
The problems arise when you forget that you’re writing a story, and let the idea take over. Forget about fully inventing characters! I’m going to show how bad pollution is, so I’ll have all the polluters be evil conspirators so eager to make a buck that they don’t care how many people die because of the poisons they put in the ground or in the water.
The trouble is that when such a story is finished, who will want to read it? People who already agree with you, who already think polluting corporations are run by inhuman monsters, will think the story is right on the mark; but what about the people who don’t yet agree with you, the cones who have never thought much about pollution? If your characters are too one-dimensional to believe in, you won’t persuade anybody. Your uncommitted readers will sense that they’re being lied to. “Nobody’s that evil,” they’ll say. Few will be convinced. You’ll end up preaching to the choir.
When you have a point to make, an idea to put across, it is all the more important to be a good storyteller, to examine every character and writing from him all possible truth. If you want to write a story that makes the dangers of industrial pollution really come home to people, you don’t make the ”bad guys” into villainous conspirators. Instead, you focus on a “bad guy” who thinks of himself as a good guy. His factory makes a product that people need, and he’s following all the regulations. He’s also trying to keep costs down so the product will be affordable and competitive. When people start complaining that the company is polluting the community’s water, he doesn’t oppose these people because he’s evil, he opposes them because he thinks they’re wrong. To him, they’re just extremists who think that nothing but distilled water should ever be emitted by any factory; to him, these people would rather see everybody live in caves than allow any modern progress.
And, in fact, some of the people attacking his factory are just as mindlessly anti-technology as he thinks they are. But there is one of them or perhaps it’s a lab technician that he hired because he knew her folks years before, but now he has to fire her because she has leaked the contents of lab reports to the press. He knows that he’s right to fire her – she violated company regulations – but he also worries that her reports might be right. After all, he knows she isn’t crazy, and so he talks to her, learns from her, gradually comes to realize that while his factory isn’t causing the death of civilization as we know it, the pollution problem might be real. He works to solve the problem from the inside.
Do you recognize this story? You should, at least if you’ve seen the movie The China Syndrome, about the violation of safety regulations at a nuclear power plant, leading to a dangerous near-meltdown. The situations are not identical, but the basic movement of the stories is similar. The China Syndrome did settle for a few trite and obvious villains – which weakened the movie – but all the people we focused on were ordinary and decent, neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil. That movie turned out to be effective persuasive writing, precisely because the characters were so believable. Of course, it helped believability when the nuclear accident happened at Three Mile Island around the time the movie was released.
Polemic – persuasive writing – only works when it doesn’t feel like propaganda. The audience must feel that you’re being absolutely fair to people on the other side. If you depict them as devils, the uncommitted members of the audience will be disgusted, and you’ll convince none of them. But if you show all the characters as human, you have a good chance of bringing many audience members to your point of view or increasing their commitment to your cause.
The same is true when you are telling a story in order to put across an idea. This often happens in science fiction, where the writer wants to show readers a neat gadget or scientific discovery, and uses characters only to convey information. The same can happen in historical fiction, where certain characters exist only to demonstrate particular historical attitudes; or in academic/literary fiction, when a character is introduced solely to be a symbol of something, or to speak keywords that explicate the story’s theme.
All of these are legitimate starting points for a character – but if you actually expect your reader to get emotionally involved, to respond to your story as a story, you must wring more life from the character, so that she isn’t so obviously being manipulated by the author to produce results that have nothing to do with the events of the story itself.
Of course, this can be done wrongheadedly. I’ve seen many writers “characterize” by having their one-dimensional cardboard character hop into bed with another one-dimensional cardboard character and have the cardboard equivalent of sex. You don’t “flesh out” a character whose role is to put across an idea or point of view by having the character do a lot of things that have nothing to do with the story.
Instead, you must follow where the original idea leads. Why does the character care so much about this particular idea? And don’t settle for the first answer, either. Why does Nora care so much about pollution? Because her father died of pollution-caused cancer! No, no. let’s twist that around. Let’s say instead that her father used to spray the defoliant Agent Orange out of his helicopter in Vietnam. It never had any ill effect on him, but he has become increasingly despondent, knowing how much harm he might have done. No, no, let’s twist it again. Nora only found out he sprayed Agent Orange by accident, overhearing him talk with some war buddies. When she challenged him, he answered with hostility, swearing that the chemical was harmless, and all the people claiming to have been damaged by the chemical are just trying to collect from the government to pay for health problems that have nothing to do with Vietnam. Now as she fights industrial pollution, she’s really fighting her father – or, perhaps, trying to atone for his sin, though, he refuses to admit he did anything wrong.
Isn’t the character of Nora a lot more interesting now than she was when she was anti-pollution because her father died from it? Not that the death of a parent isn’t good motivation. It’s just too easy. “My father died of it,” said Nora. It explains everything – it explains nothing. Do all the children of people who die from pollution go out and crusade against it? No. so we still haven’t answered the question of why Nora reacted to her father’s death by devoting her life to the crusade against pollution. The simple answer is never the complete answer.
To create effective persuasive or educational fiction, you must have believable, interesting characters. That means that you must be even more careful to make your characters balanced and well-rounded, not less so. If you’re in doubt, go back to Chapter 1 (What Is A Character?) and see how much you know about the character in each of the categories listed there. Go back to Chapter 2 (What Makes a Good Fictional Character) and ask those questions of the character. The idea may be the source of your character, but it better not be the only source, or your story won’t be either good fiction or good polemic.
There are many other chance sources of character ideas. You aren’t necessarily looking for stories or characters, but because your idea net is out, you catch them anyway. Some people get ideas from dreams, some from news stories, a letter to Ann Landers, an anecdote from a history or biography, the headline on a supermarket tabloid, a line from a song. Sometimes characters seem to come out of nowhere – they just start talking inside your head.
In every case, you’ll need to examine them carefully, invent them fully, help them come to life.
Two Ideas from Unrelated Sources
It’s important to remember that ideas don’t have to come at the same time for them to belong together. I’ve often been struggling with a problem in one story, only to find the solution by remembering a character or idea from a completely unrelated story, one I may have worked on years and years before. For instance, the basic idea for my novel Speaker for the Dead was going nowhere until I realized that my title character had to be the main character from another story, Ender’s Game. Suddenly I knew the character’s past, knew why he was “speaking for the dead,” and the story unfolded much more easily.
My experience is that I have never done well writing a story from one idea or developing a character from one source. Only when I put together two previously unrelated ideas or characters do they come to life; it is in the process of connecting the unconnected that my stories grow. This may be true for some of you, also.
You can help ideas come “by chance,” however, by simply keeping your mind working – by often filling your mind with speculation. What if?
What if I lost my eyesight? What would I do then?
What if I accidentally threw away something priceless? Who might find it? How would I go about finding it? What could you possibly throw away without realizing it had value? A lottery ticket, of course. Anything else? A letter by someone famous. A priceless book. A jewel you thought was fake. An alien from another world who happened to look just like a paper clip. What then?
What if a person who had worked in an office all his life suddenly got assigned to work at home on a computer terminal, doing the same job without even leaving his house? How would his family respond? Would he miss the office life? Revel in the new freedom to determine his own schedule? Would his wife start expecting him to be a househusband while she continued going off to work?
Or look at the landscapes you drive through or live in or remember or landscapes you’ve seen in National Geographic. Wonder about them. Who lives here? Who has died here? How did they die?
What do children do to play here? What are they afraid of? Where do they refuse to go after dark? What do they dare each other to do?
What is likely to be the first job of a person who grows up around here? What do parents fear and hope for their children? Where do people shop or trade? What is the worst thing the weather here does to people?
Where do their kinfolk live? What songs to they hear coming through the window on a hot summer night? What do they smell? And how do they feel about the smells, the songs, the weather, their jobs, each other, themselves?
There isn’t a landscape on earth where you can’t find wonderful stories in the answers to these questions.
“Wonderful stories.” Exactly the right word, wonderful.
The stories that fill a reader with wonder are the stories that came from a wondering mind, your mind, constantly speculating, exaggerating, questioning, challenging, twisting, searching. Good stories and characters will wander through, by and by. You’ll find them in your idea net, and you’ll breathe on them and bring them all to life.