REAL PEOPLE ARE WHO THEY ARE – you love ‘em or leave ‘em. But fictional character have a job to do. And if they aren’t fulfilling their purpose, they’ve got to change until they do – or another character has to be found to do the job.
If they’re major characters, they’ve got to be interesting and believable enough for people to want to read about what they do.
If they’re minor characters, they’ve got to advance the story line or twist it or relieve tension or convey information – and then they’ve got to get out of the way.
THE THREE QUESTIONS READERS ASK
When readers pick up your story or novel, they want it to be good. They want to care about the people in your story. They want to believe. They’re on your side. That honeymoon with the readers lasts about three paragraphs with a short story, two pages or so with a novel.
Within that time you need to give the reader some reason to read on. You need to answer the three challenging questions that all readers unconsciously ask throughout every story they read. When each question is adequately answered, readers go on with the story. When a question isn’t answered well enough, doubts begin to rise to the surface.
Question 1: So What?
Why should I care about what’s going on in this story? Why is this important? Why shouldn’t I go downstairs and watch TV? I’ve seen this kind of thing happen in stories a thousand times before. If this is all the story’s about, I’m through with it.
Question 2: Oh Yeah?
Come on, I don’t believe anybody would do that. That isn’t the way things work. That was pretty convenient, wasn’t it? How dumb does this author thing I am? Give me a break. This author doesn’t know anything. I’m through with this story.
Question 3: Huh?
What’s happening? This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know who’s talking or what they’re talking about. Where is this stuff happening? I don’t get it. This is just a bunch of words, it doesn’t amount to anything? Either I can’t read or this author can’t write, but either way I’m through with this book Chapter.
Sounds pretty hostile, doesn’t it? Well, as long as you do your job as a storyteller and a writer, most of your readers will find you ready for these basic questions.
Whenever they unconsciously ask “So what?” your story will give them a reason to care.
Whenever a doubt comes into their mind and they’re about to say “Oh yeah?” your story will include a clue or an explanation that persuades the reader to go on trusting you.
And, of course, you’ll make sure there’s never a moment of confusion or inclarity in your story. On those rare but vital occasions when suspense requires you to withhold a bit of information, you’ll make sure your readers know exactly what the question is, even if they don’t know the answer. Even the uncertainties in your story must be clear, so readers will know you meant it to be that way, so they’ll continue to trust your competence to deliver the story you promised them.
Your characters must deal with these three audience questions from the beginning. With rare exceptions, stories are about people and what they do, and, with even rarer exceptions, a story should focus on only a few characters. (As a general rule (formula), the longer the story, the more characters it can deal with well.) These major characters are the ones who must satisfy those three questions the audience is constantly, unconsciously, asking.
Not every reader will care equally about every character. When you’ve answered the questions well enough to satisfy Group 1, there’s still Group 2 that won’t care and Group 3 that won’t believe, and Group 4 that never gets what’s going on at all.
YOU ARE THE FIRST AUDIENCE
A lot of this Chapter is devoted to helping you learn how to make characters more interesting and believable to your readers. But the starting point, the most important factor of all, is whether they’re interesting and believable to you. You are the first audience for the tale.
If you don’t care about a character, you can’t possibly write an interesting story about him. If you don’t believe in a character, there’s no chance that you can make your readers believe in him either.
This isn’t something you decide intellectually. It’s a feeling, a gut-level response. When you think of an idea for a character (or for any other part of a story), you either get interested and excited and know that you want to write about it, or you don’t. And if you don’t, if a character or story idea bores you or sounds silly to you, you can’t possibly write a convincing or engaging story – unless you find something else about the character or story idea that does intrigue you.
Throughout the rest of this Chapter, I’ll be making suggestions about ways to improve story ideas. I’ll often give examples. Sometimes those examples will appeal to you – you’ll care about the scrap of story I tell, you’ll believe in it. More often, though, you’ll intellectually understand what I’m doing, but it won’t ring true to you, or it will seem a bit dull. That’s OK. This Chapter can’t possibly give you the exact answer to every story problem you’re going to run into. All I can give you are the questions you must ask of your characters, the demands you must make of your story material. Then you must keep asking those questions and making those demands until you finally come up with an answer that works for you, that makes you hungry to tell the story.
No two authors would ever tell a story the same way, because no two people ever care about and believe in the same things to exactly the same degree. Every story choice you make arises out of who you are, at the deepest levels of your soul; every story you tell reveals who you are and the way you conceive the world around you – reveals more about you, in fact, than you know about yourself.
That’s what it means when people tell you that you can only write to please yourself. If you don’t care about a story, you can’t possibly write it well. It’s like writing down a long lie that doesn’t convince even you.
But once you have a story that rings true to you, a story that feels important and worth telling, then you don’t write just to please yourself. At that point you must use every ounce of skill you have, every technique you’ve learned through experience – and through this Chapter – to help your readers discover how important and truthful your story is, to help them understand what’s going on, to bring them into the world of your story and let the events unfold before their eyes, in their imagination, in their memory.
Some readers will be so in harmony with you that they’ll receive your story no matter how clumsy your efforts; for other readers you’ll never succeed no matter how good a writer you are. But that doesn’t mean you should shrug and write however you like. You owe it to other people to give them the best possible chance to receive this important, truthful story. You owe it to them to make it as clear as possible, to give them every possible reason to care, every possible justification for belief.
Belief. Emotional involvement. Understanding.
I like to remember these principles by paraphrasing St. Paul:
Faith, hope, and clarity.
I don’t think it even has to be paraphrased. Because if your story really does matter, if your made-up tales have any real value at all, then it truly is an act of charity, of brotherly love, to open up that story to as many people as can possibly receive it.
Some techniques I’ll tell you in this Chapter can be used mindlessly and mechanically, and they’ll still work, to a degree. But I hope you won’t use them that way. I hope you’ll only use them when they really belong in your story, when they won’t damage the truth and power of the tale.
Our objective as storytellers and writers isn’t to make money – there are faster and easier ways of doing that. Our objective is to change people by putting our stories in their memory; to make the world better by bringing other people face to face with reality, or giving them a vision of hope, or whatever other form our truth-telling might take. You want the widest possible audience to receive this message; when you use your best skills to open up your story to other readers, you aren’t “pandering to the masses,” you’re freely giving your best gifts. If your stories happen to reach a very wide audience then yes, money will come. But it isn’t the money that makes the work worth doing; too many of us make too little for that to be the motive that pulls us along.
The moment you use a technique that doesn’t belong in your story, solely for the sake of appealing to some imagined reader who wants a bit more sex or a tad more sentimentality or some tough action, at that moment your story dies a little, becomes a little more lie and a little less truth. For every ready you might gain that way, you’ll lose the power to influence a dozen others who will recognize the falseness in your story and reject it.
INTERROGATING THE CHARACTER
I’ll talk in a minute about where ideas for characters come from. But before you go in pursuit of ideas, it’s good to know what to do with an idea when you find one.
You ask questions.
The questions you’ll need to ask are mostly about causes and results. Why would he do such a thing? What made him do it? If he does it, what will happen as a result?
Let me give you an example. I recently conducted a workshop I call “A Thousand Ideas in an Hour.” I’ve done this with adults and children, professional writers, aspiring writers, and people who have no particular interest in writing. It’s always an exhilarating, creative hour.
This time I was working with a group of fourth-graders in my son’s school. I asked questions; they came up with answers.
Do you want a story about a boy or a girl?
- A boy! No, a girl!
OK then, we won’t decide yet. How old is this person?
- Ten! No, twelve!
Twelve? Why twelve? What happens to you when you’re twelve?
- You can stay up later.
Oh? What do you do when you stay up later?
- Watch TV!
- The good shows!
- Scary shows!
What else can you do?
- Go places by yourself!
Where would you go?
- The mall!
- Friends’ houses!
- Wherever I want!
Heck, I’m thirty-seven and I can’t do that.
- When you’re twelve you get more money.
How does that happen?
- Bigger allowance.
- So twelve-year-olds can babysit. Have any of you ever done any babysitting?
- My brothers.
- The baby.
- I have.
What can go wrong when you’re babysitting?
- The house burns down.
Yeah, but that doesn’t happen very often.
- The kids start a fire!
What do you do then?
- Put it out!
- Call the fire department!
- Get out of the house!
- Leave the one who started the fire!
Oh, you’re all heart. A fire would make an exciting story, but I don’t feel like doing that one right now. What else can go wrong when you’re babysitting?
- Messy diapers.
That’s just part of the job.
- The baby crying.
- OK, that baby’s crying. What do you do?
- Change his diaper.
- You changed the diaper. He’s still crying. What do you do?
- Feed him.
- Burp him.
- Tell him to be quiet.
You do all that, he’s still crying.
- Maybe he’s sick.
- There’s a chance of that. What do you do?
- Call you mother!
- She isn’t home. She had a meeting that night.
- Call the people. The people you’re babysitting for.
- They’re driving somewhere and they don’t have a car phone.
- Go next door!
You don’t know those people, and it’s dark and there are a lot of trees and they aren’t home anyway.
- You’re cheating!
- You won’t let us do anything!
It’s no fun if it isn’t hard. All these things you’re telling me, they’re part of the story. You try everything, and it doesn’t work. What do you do now?
- Put it to bed and let it cry.
You do that, and it screams louder and louder until it starts choking and coughing and you pick it up again. What next?
- Call the doctor.
- His office is closed.
- Call the hospital!
- The emergency room!
- They never close.
You’ve got me; I can’t weasel out of that. They never close. So you call. What happens? They tell you to try doing all the stuff you’ve already tried. They tell you to call all the people you already tried to call. Then what?
OK, you called an ambulance. It pulls up, siren going, lights flashing. What happens?
- The baby stops crying.
- The parents come home!
Wonderful! The baby stops crying and the parents come home. They see an ambulance at their house, they come inside –
- The baby’s sleeping.
- Like a baby!
What do you do?
- Tell them what happened.
- They won’t believe you.
- They never believe kids.
- They yell at you.
Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But do you they ever hire you again?
- Nobody does!
- They tell your parents!
- Your mom never lets you babysit again.
- You go back and smack the baby!
You want to, anyway.
- This isn’t a fair story! It wasn’t your fault!
Right. It wasn’t your fault. So what do you do about it?
- Make your parents believe you.
How do you do that?
- Have your mom babysit the stupid kid.
Great idea! Only you don’t make her do it. Let’s say that a couple of months later the parents call and ask your mom to watch the baby for a while. You don’t even go downstairs to see them, you’re so embarrassed. You just sit in your room, studying, reading, whatever.
- Listening to tapes.
- Watching TV.
- The baby starts crying.
The baby cries. You can hear it up in your room, you listen, you enjoy. You know your mon’s changing the diapers, feeding it, all the stuff you did. Trying to call the parents. She even tries to call her mother.
- She calls an ambulance!
Maybe! But I think it’s enough if she comes upstairs, opens your door, holding the baby screaming its head off, and says, “OK, kid, you were right. You can babysit again.”
- Not if it’s that baby!
Right! That’s what you tell her. And the story’s over.
Notice the process that’s going on here. We started out knowing nothing more than the character’s age. But that gave us enough that we could start asking why and what results.
What happens because you’re twelve? There are several answers. Any one of them would have been useful – in fact, later in that same session we went back and got another story out of the idea of twelve-year-olds staying up late and watching scary movies. But I happened to choose babysitting.
What can go wrong? This is a fundamental story question, asking for complications and difficulties. But it’s also a what result question – only I slanted the question to get negative answers. After all, there’s no story if nothing goes wrong. The idea of a fire was too melodramatic for me, though of course a wonderful story could be told about saving the children you’re babysitting. But it just wasn’t what I felt like working with then, so I kept asking the same question till I got an answer that I liked.
Once we had the idea of the baby crying, I again asked a what result question. What do you do to stop the baby from crying? Each time they came up with a possible solution to the problem, I agreed that the babysitter would try that, but kept saying that it didn’t work. Why? Because the minute something worked to stop the crying, the story would be over.
If one of them had suggested that the babysitter should examine the baby’s body, then I would have asked what the babysitter found. Maybe a bruise, maybe a horrible bug – who knows what they would have come up with? It might have led to the babysitter finding out the cause of the crying. But since nobody came up with any suggestions except the obvious and uninteresting ones, I made them keep going – I wouldn’t let the baby stop crying.
I could have asked more sophisticated motive questions. Why doesn’t the babysitter just put the kid to bed, close the door, and ignore the screaming? Then they might have said such things as: The babysitter was once locked in a dark room when she was little and she can’t stand to leave anybody else alone. Or: She can’t stand to hear babies cry.
Or: She’s afraid the baby might die.
Why would she be afraid of that?
- Her little brother died.
- He cried all the time before he died.
Do you see how the answer to this simple why question opens up new possibilities in the story? The version we actually came up with was fine. It would be a cute, funny story. But coming up with a reason why this crying baby would mean far more than annoyance to the babysitter adds an element of urgency, of poignancy. Now the glib ending might not be enough. Now the babysitter’s mother might understand why the babysitter called an ambulance, might explain to the baby’s parents. We might even want to have it end with the paramedics discovering that there really was something wrong with the baby. Or we might want to lead up to the babysitter’s mother driving them both to the little brother’s grave, and talking about it in a way they never had before.
But such possibilities only emerge when we demand more from the idea, when we ask more why and what result questions. If you stop with the first acceptable answer, the first “good enough” version of the story, you lose the chance to move from shallowness to depth, from simplicity to complexity, from a merely fun story to a fun but powerful one.
Notice also that as I kept insisting that nothing would stop the baby’s crying, I was building the baby up to mythic proportions. It had ceased to be an ordinary baby, one that can be comprehended by the normal human mind, and had started to become the archetypal Baby, the unfathomable barbarian who emerged from the human womb but now rules the family with its whimsical, unintelligible demands; the Baby as a devil-god no sacrifice will ever satisfy.
A little exaggeration helps turn an ordinary, believable, dull person into an interesting one. A little more, and the person becomes more archetypal, but a bit less believable as an individual. Even more exaggeration, and a character becomes a cartoon, a caricature, perhaps useful for laughs or satire, but not for poignancy or real belief. Exaggerate too much, and the character becomes utterly useless: unbelievable, unrecognizable.
Do the Twist
In the story idea the class and I worked out together, we assumed that the babysitter was a responsible human being, trying to do a good job. But what if the babysitter has a racket? What if the parents always come home to find the baby crying, so they’ll feel guilty for the awful time the babysitter had and pay extra?
The method here is to take an assumption about a character and give it a good sharp twist. I was conducting a thousand-ideas session at the convention in Chattanooga that happened to be attended by Gene Wolfe, the most brilliant writer of speculative fiction in the 1980s. The group had invented a fantasy character – a young king who have to abstain from all sexual activity as a kind of sacrifice; if he ever achieved any kind of sexual fulfilment, his kingdom would weaken, the magic that sustained it would slacken or fade. We had all assumed that the young king would be restive under his obligatory limitations, yearning for sex and trying to find a way to escape his guardians. But Wolfe said, “No, no, you don’t understand. This young man thinks they don’t restrict him enough. He’s absolutely terrified that he’ll accidentally slip into some form of sexual release and cause some dire consequence to his people. He’d make sure they watched him all the time.”
The character the group had invented was believable, certainly – a lot of teenagers in real life expend considerable effort trying to escape sexual limitations. But Wolfe’s twist led to a character no less believable, but a great deal more interesting, and from there we asked a lot of why and what result questions that made for one of the best stories ever to emerge from such a session.
The Cliché Shelf
Never let an idea pass through your mind without giving it the third degree. Shine a bright light on it. Demand that it answer your questions. And let your questions, again and again, be Why? What caused that? For what purpose? What’s the result of that? What would happen then?
Be brutal. Don’t let your idea sit there without answering. Don’t believe the first answer that comes to mind, either. Chances are very good that the first answer you come up with will be a cliché. The second one will come along that really comes alive for you. Or if the one that works best for you is one of the first ones you thought of, then fine, go back to it.
And then, when you think the idea is just right, when the character is exactly what you want her to be, exaggerate an aspect of her that nobody else has ever thought of exaggerating. Or give the character a little twist. Or both.
Everybody – not just writers – has a little library of clichés, stock story elements. We all pick these up from our reading, from jokes and stories people tell us. Most of these are public clichés – events and characters that everybody has seen a lot of over the years. Some are private clichés, personal quirks or obsessions that you aren’t even aware of.
When you’re writing along, or outlining a story, or simply interrogating an idea that just came to you, chances are very good that when you ask one of these why and what result questions, the first answer that pops into your mind will be a cliché. It’s as if, without even looking up, you reach onto that cliché shelf and pull down the first thing that comes to hand. And if you aren’t paying attention, you’ll settle for it, and your story will be weaker and shallower because you made do with a cheap and easy answer and didn’t keep asking questions until you came up with something really good. [i.e. mentor and resurrection]
FROM CHARACTER TO STORY, FROM STORY TO CHARACTER
There are some specific questions that will help open up possibilities in your mind as you interrogate your ideas.
In that thousand-ideas session, when we just had a twelve-year-old kid we didn’t have a character, really. Once we got a job for the kid, then we had a stereotype: babysitter.
A simple stereotype isn’t much to build a story on. But that question I asked – What could go wrong? – is one of the basic questions you ask to get a story or situation out of an idea for a character.
Often you’ll find yourself in the opposite position. You’ll have an idea for a setting or situation for a story, and you won’t have any idea about who the characters ought to be. Then the question you ask is: Who suffers most in this situation? Your interrogation of the idea will then focus on the person who has the most need to change things – that will almost always lead you to the most possibilities, and it usually happens that the character you find this way will end up as the main character of the tale.
Actually, for practical reasons the question should usually be: Who suffers most in this situation without dying or being incapacitated? The story usually can’t be about somebody who dies at the beginning, or who is rendered incapable of doing much throughout the rest of the tale.
This whole chapter has been about questions, hasn’t it? There are questions the audience asks:
You ask those questions, too, but you ask many more. There are the causal questions:
What made this happen?
What is the purpose?
What is the result?
Then there are the questions that open up story and character possibilities:
What can go wrong?
Who suffers most in this situation?
Finally, there are two processes that wring the last drop from a character or story idea:
There. Now that we’ve got a plan for what to do when we find an idea, let’s go get some.