Lesson 6: Develop your idea – Character, Setting, & Problem

Think about what you’ve learned in the previous lessons:

  • The purpose of stories
  • What draws you to your favorite stories
  • The main parts of stories
  • How to create hope and fear for characters
  • How to generate suspense
  • How to generate interest in characters
  • The main three parts of a story structure
  • What the heck a plot is
  • To keep your eye on the objective, not rules
  • What creativity really is
  • Two powerful tools for finding and generating ideas
  • And probably a lot more

It’s now time to put all of that to work. It’s time to start creating your own redneck crapper.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably be grateful for some help the first few times through. So I’m going to guide you through the type of pre-work I’ve found helps me tremendously to get ready to start my first draft.

Please don’t think I’m suggesting this is the only way it can be done. But it is an effective way. And when you’re starting out, you usually don’t have any method at all. So give the method a try. Later, as you complete more stories,  you will evolve this and other techniques you pick up along the way into your own personalized method, you’re own secret sauce recipe. The quicker you start and finish stories (not just read about theory), the quicker that happens.

So let’s get to work. Follow the seven steps below, then complete the debrief to capture your learning.

Sketch vs Plan

Before you begin, I want to clarify something. I’ve found the word “plan” causes problems when I use it to refer to what I do before drafting. A plan, in my mind, is something I must execute to. It’s like the word “blueprint.” Both suggest the thinking has been done, and now it’s time to simply follow the instructions.

But my stories never follow the plan exactly. And I’ve never been able to imagine everything that goes into a story before I write the draft. Never. I very frequently discover and invent lots of awesome things during the draft. But it’s not just me. Nobody can imagine every line of dialogue, every action, every reaction before they write the story. That’s what you do during the draft. Everyone is inventing, albeit in finer and finer detail, until they publish the thing and move onto the next project.

So I’m not going to use “plan” or “blueprint” or anything else like that. Instead you’ll see I use the word sketch. A sketch is simply a preliminary thing. It often focuses on one thing and leaves a lot out. If you don’t like it, you can change it or toss it. You can create multiple sketches until you get one that starts to speak to you. And you can feel free to vary from it when you’re doing the final work. Some sketches are detailed, some are not. All of them help you develop the idea.

In this class, let’s not come up with plans. Instead, let’s create lots of sketches for character, setting, problem, and plot. And then continue to discover and develop zing as we draft.

Step 1: Gather your current material

I want you to get out a new notebook or open a new file on your computer. I want you to collect all the ideas you have at this point for your story. It can include writing, photographs, audio, whatever. You can categorize them by part—character, setting, problem, plot—if you want. Or not. Just get it all together.

Step 2: Identify your genre

Next, identify the genre of the story you want to tell. Is it fantasy, science fiction, thriller, mystery, romance, some blend? Is it a subgenre of one of those main genres? What is it? Write it down.

Step 3: Sketch your setting

In this next step, I want you to create a summary sketch of the setting the story will take place in.

But, John, must I really do setting next?

Of course not. Go back and read “Develop the 6 Core Parts, Start Anywhere.” However, setting is often a good place to start because you’ll often find a lot of zing about character, THOMR, conflict, and much more there.

Your goal with this step is to start to have the place come alive in your mind. It’s to find zing. It is NOT to fill out lists. Remember that what you’re trying to do with the setting is:

  • Give the reader a wider sense of place and history
  • Give the reader the cool stuff (we do like the discovery of new places)
  • Give enough detail so the reader can imagine clearly where the action takes place
  • Provide the reader enough telling details so that the story feels real
  • Know for yourself the conflicts and obstacles and reality of that place so it helps spark ideas in you as you plot and write

So look at the items below as prompts to consider. Eventually, your future list might be larger or smaller and contain different items. The key is not having the one true list. It’s to start thinking. Consider each item. Generate some ideas. If you find some zing, great. If not, you can move on. If you’re setting is contemporary, this will probably go quickly. If it’s historical or science fiction or fantasy, you’ll probably spend a lot of time here.

Please don’t feel like you need to know everything because you don’t need to know everything to start writing. You will invent stuff as you go along. Right now, all you’re doing is making a quick sketch or three. And by “sketch” I just mean a brief list or a summary of a page or three about the main categories. You can certainly do more, but this is just to get you going.

If you’re doing fantasy or science fiction, start here

If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction story, you need to do some additional work on your setting. If you’re not, just skip to the section on the natural aspects of your setting.

Magic

If you’re writing a fantasy story, magic often plays a large role, although sometimes you’re just trying to be mystical. Please read all three of Brandon Sanderson’s laws of magic. Answer this question: are you going to do hard or soft magic? 

If you’re going to make magic part of the plot, read this post on inventing magic to reinforce some key concepts, then sketch the following:

  • What cool, scary, funny, mysterious, or thrilling things can the magic do?
  • What are the special things only a few can do?
  • How does it work–what’s the lore? What things does the lore not yet explain or know or that are lost?
  • What are the limitations?
  • What are the ramifications on society and the natural world?

If you’re doing soft magic, I want you to sketch out what the magic is and how it might affect your world and characters.

Creatures

Very often, both fantasy and science fiction stories include awesome creatures. Are you interested in having any in your world? If so, list them out. Then answer these questions about them:

  • What makes them cool, scary, funny, mysterious, or thrilling?
  • Do they have any powers? If so, what are they? And what are their limitations and ramifications? What are the rare powers?

Do you want them to be more than mysterious? If so, you probably want to explore the biology and society of these creatures. If so, sketch answers to the questions about biology and sociology.

What’s their biology? This includes things like how they reproduce, how they are born and die, what they eat, what makes them sick, how they heal, how they move and where they live, what they can perceive, and what environmental (or dimensional) niche they live in.

What’s their sociology? This includes things like whether they are solitary or communal, how they organize themselves (families, tribes, nations?), their races or ethnicity, how they govern their societies, what they value, who the majorities and minorities are in their societies, their enemies and allies, what they consider criminal or disgusting, what they think is admirable, what their language is, whether they have any religions.

Remember: you’re not trying to write a book about them. You’re just trying to generate some zing. A few sketches with half-a-dozen bits of zing is just fine.

Technology

For anyone writing something in the past or future, and even sometimes when you’re writing about an arena that involves tech like the military, computer hacking, or auto mechanics in the present day, you will want to begin to explore the level of technology of  your story, which is a lot like magic. Please sketch answers to these questions:

  • What cool, scary, funny, mysterious, or thrilling bits of tech are there?
  • What tech is awesome but rare?
  • How does it work? Note: you can get really technical, or treat it like most of us do the toaster–we don’t know exactly how it works, but we know how to push the lever and can see the elements glow.
  • What are the limitations of these bits of tech?
  • What are the ramifications on society and the natural world?

Borrowing from real life

When you move to sketching the natural and man-made aspects of your setting, remember that you can base your ideas for your science fiction or fantasy world on the real world. George R.R. Martin based his popular Song of Fire and Ice series on the history and location of the War of Roses. Orson Card based his Alvin Maker series on North America in the 1800s. I set my Dark God series in a geography stolen from Boston and a climate stolen from northern California. Please feel free to steal and adapt ideas from nature or human society.

Natural aspects

Regardless of what genre you’re working in, sketch your ideas about these topics, keeping your eyes open for zing.

  • Map
  • Geography
  • Climate, season, weather
  • Flora
  • Fauna
  • What’s the brief history of the place?
  • Is there any place or thing that’s dangerous, cool, interesting, funny, mysterious, enviable, romantic, spooky?

Man-made aspects

Now sketch some ideas about these things, again, keeping your eyes open for zing.

  • Level of technology (if you’re writing about some period in history or a different society)
  • Population: Urban, rural, wilderness
  • Basics
    • Food and water
    • Shelter
    • Clothing
    • Energy
    • Transportation
    • Fun, entertainment, recreation
  • More
    • Who owns the land?
    • How do people group themselves? Clans, race, religion, language, region, nation? Other?
    • What kind of government do they have? Who really holds the power?
    • Who does law enforcement?
    • What’s the army like?
    • What kinds of things do people do for a living? Are there any big businesses? Employees, servants, slaves?
    • What kinds of religions are there?
    • How do people learn trades and vocations? Schools? Guilds? Etc?
    • Who is rich? Who is poor?
    • Who is the majority? Who are the minorities?
    • Who are the enemies? Allies?
    • Anything significant in the history of the place?
    • What kinds of crime are big there? Are there any criminal organizations?
  • Special
    • Who are the folks to be scared of?
    • Who are the folks who are nice?
    • What are the conflicts in the community or society?
    • What points of conflict do our characters have with the setting?
    • What’s a brief history of the peoples of the place?
    • Is there any thing that’s dangerous, cool, interesting, funny, mysterious, enviable, romantic, spooky?

If you aren’t getting many ideas, go back and review the methods for hunting zing, then go hunting. If it’s a real setting and time, research is hugely helpful.

Again, the goal is not to discover everything you need to know about the setting up front before you write. You probably can’t know everything you’ll need until you’ve finished the story. For example, I’ll often find many things as I’m writing my first draft that I have to go and do a bit a research about but that I never could have foreseen that I’d need to know. You’re not trying to write an encyclopedia. You’re just trying to build some zing.

Step 4: Create the initial sketches of your main characters

I want you now to turn to your main characters and sketch each of them. Focus on the main 4-6 characters. 4-6 is a good number for a regular novel. Some will have many more main characters, some less, but let’s just start there. A basic 4 might be the protagonist and his helper and the antagonist and his helper, if he has one. I suggest you start with the following:

  • Name
  • Dominant impression (gender, age, vocation, manner)
  • What role you think you want them to play in the story. Do they hinder or help the main character? Do they do both?
  • Their motive for hindering or helping
  • Will they play to or against the type for their role?
  • How are they different from the other members of the cast? (You want lots of variety.)

You want your character to be clear to the reader, but you also want them to be clear to you. One way to do both is to paint a general picture (broad brush), then add in a detail or three that particularize them. I call this the broad brush +1 technique (the +1 doesn’t mean you must limit it to one, just that you want to limit it to keep it simple). Here are some examples.

Brent was a small, fussy man who liked to iron his underwear. “Small, fussy man” paints a general picture. Ironing his underwear is a particular detail.

Kirk was a crag of a man with a scar that ran across his throat like someone had cut it, which they had. “Crag of a man” is a broad brush. The scar is specific.

Melanie rode around on a pink scooter, but when she stepped onto the basketball court she became the Melanator, and woe be unto the girl who tried to get position on her anywhere near the block. The implied basketball player is the general image. The pink scooter and name Melantor are the particulars.

Learn more in the “Vivid and Clear” presentation listed in lesson 4.

Along with the broad brush +1, I’ve found having a dominant impression helps keep things clear. I use Dwight Swain’s method. If you don’t know it, here the thinking behind it.

To what extent is a character like a real person–a living, breathing human being?

At a generous estimate, about one one-thousandth of 1 per cent.

The reason this is so is because a living person is infinitely complex. A story person, on the other hand, is merely a simulation of a living person. So, he’s infinitely simpler. Space and function limit him.

Thus, even the longest book can capture only a tiny segment of any human being. . . . What’s more, there is no need in fiction to go into all the facets of a living being.

. . . Consider what happens when, in life, you meet a person for the first time. One way or another, whether you will it or not, he makes a dominant impression on you.

That is, you find yourself labeling him as a dignified person, or a cruel man, or a sexy woman, or a flighty girl, or a rowdy body, or what have you.

Precisely the same process takes place in fiction. So, to shape your reader’s reaction to a story person, you decide what image you want said reader to receive.

So what is the dominant impression made of? Gender, age, vocation, and manner. Gender and age are easy enough. Vocation is simply the person’s role in society, what they do for a living. The manner is an adjective which describes how they tend to behave. Swain feels it’s the most important part.

So you have a pushy cab driver, a shy sports star, a bold-eyed girl who won’t be pushed around, a sympathetic school teacher, an unsympathetic school teacher, a drill-sergeant chef, a clumsy mechanic, a whiny governor, a sloppy waitress, surly cop, forthright mill hand, friendly druggist, worried nurse.

I sometimes use a metaphor. You saw that with Kirk being a crag of a man. Koontz often uses a metaphor or single idea with details to reinforce it.

The key is that keeping it simple actually gives you more bang for the buck. You’ll see the reason for that in “Vivid and Clear.” That doesn’t mean you have to always play to type. Playing against type is great. It doesn’t mean you can’t add some particularizing details to flesh the story person out. Or give the character internal dilemmas, etc. It just means that when you get too complex, you lose power. Swain again.

Before we go further, however, let’s emphasize one point too often forgotten, especially be beginners: People are like tapestries; that is, each is woven of many threads. But some threads are more vivid and visible than others, like strands of red through a gray fabric.

It’s also important to remember that making a character too complex will kill him. A good character is a simulation of complexity, not the real thing. Fairly clear and simple traits work best. Otherwise the effect will be that given by a “busy” painting, one too clutter with detail. So while ordinarily you’ll want to go beyond the cartoon/caricature level, try not to carry development so far in depth that your people fall over the edge into total confusion. The meaningful character in fiction is the one with ha salient feature, or two or three, like the real-life Ayatollah Khomeini, Richard Nixon, or Elvis Presley, with individuality and color added via modifying touches.

Thus, in life, we don’t know most of our friends and neighbors in depth. They exist for us mainly in terms of dominant impressions plus externals–appearance, speech, mannerism, attitudes, abilities–plus how we get along with them.

For more information, please read about characters in one of Swain’s books that I listed in the link on lesson 4.

After thinking about the items above, now consider these. And remember that exaggeration is often what makes people a bit more interesting.

  • Economic and social class
  • Any bits that are quirky or interesting?
  • What are they good at? Do they have any gifts or awesome skills?
  • Do they have a weakness, fear, or handicap?
  • What in their history is interesting or might affect this story?
  • What’s going to make this person interesting?

You don’t have to limit yourself to the items above. You might have questions that are more productive for you. You might use photos as part of this. Heck, one writer I know uses an animal metaphor for each of her characters (Bob is like a cheetah). That’s fine. The goal is to start generating specifics so your characters come alive in your mind and you start finding zing.

Again, if you’re coming up with blanks, go back and review the zing hunting methods. Try some of them. Practice a bit of creative Q&A. When you finish this step, you should have some fun and interesting character ideas to add to your story.

Please note: you won’t have all the ideas. Stories build like a snowball, by accretion–a zing idea here, a zing idea there. This continues through the actual drafting. The goal is to have fun and generate some zing.

Step 5: Identify your THOMR and obstacle(s)

Story is made up of character, setting, problem, and plot. You’ve been developing the first two, now it’s time to turn to problem.

Why not turn to plot?

Because plot is about a character getting entangled with and solving a problem (a THOMR and obstacle). It’s about resolving some trouble. And if you don’t know what that trouble is, how in the world can you begin to figure out how  your character gets involved with it and what he’ll do? Plotting is a hundred times easier when you have a THOMR and the main obstacle.

So the next step is to answer the following:

  • What is the main THOMR?
  • What’s at stake?
  • What is the main obstacle: something in the setting, someone else, the main character herself?
  • What are some other obstacles that make this problem hard to solve?
  • What are some turns or setbacks that might be interesting and throw the main character for a loop?
  • What are points of conflict the main character has with himself or herself, other people, and the setting?

Sometimes I’m not quite sure what the THOMR is, but I do know the ending. If that’s your situation, trying working backward by flipping to the opposite of the ending. If your characters fall in love at the end, then you know they’re definitely not in love with each other in the beginning. If she learns to trust him in the end, or he learns to trust himself, then in the beginning you know she doesn’t trust him. If our brave team takes out the evil overlord in the end, then you know the evil overlord is in power and doing dastardly things in the beginning.

If you want, brainstorm ideas with your writing buddy. If you’ve run out of ideas and are stuck, read Generating Story 5-12. Identify ways you can hunt some zing and do some creative Q&A.

At this point, you should be excited about your characters and the situation they’re in.

Step 6: Write a version of your story setup

Once you feel electricity about what you’ve sketched for the setting, characters, and problem, it’s time to capture all of that in a very concise form. Doing this forces you to clarify in your own mind what your story is really about and the core forces driving it.

Please read Generating Story 4: The Story Setup.

Now state your story setup. Keep your write-up short, short, short. Try to keep it to one paragraph. The easiest way I’ve found to approach it is to (1) list out the 5 parts of the setup, which you should have already developed, then (2) put them into setup form.

The 5 parts of the setup are:

  1. Main Character
  2. Change (MOTHR)
  3. Goal
  4. Opposition
  5. Stakes

The form I want you to use (although you can use one of those in the post above if you like it better) has 3 parts.

  • Background
  • When . . .
    • Event occurs
    • Main character
    • Pursues this goal
  • But will he/she . . .
    • Antagonist provides opposition
    • Threatens some disaster

Here are some examples.

When a blood thirsty killer gets off on a technicality, he heads back to meet his gang and get revenge on the sheriff who tried to put him away. But will the sheriff be able to save himself when nobody in town will help him? (High Noon)

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department? (Storm Front by Jim Butcher)

Bob is a frustrated retired superhero, living a boring life as an insurance claim processor. When he gets an offer to do illegal superhero work on the sly, he decides to take it and pursue a double life, even though he’s forced to lie to his wife about it. But his dream job employer is actually trying to settle and old score and kill him.  Will he lose his family when he’s drawn into a showdown with a super villain that has him outmatched? (The Incredibles)

A group of scientists and family members gets a sneak peek at a park of dinosaurs. When the electrical grid fails, the fences allow the dinosaurs to get out of their areas. Will the group be able to get out alive when the T-rex and velociraptors begin to hunt them? (Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton)

When Ender Wiggins is assessed, he’s selected to train in the battle school to save earth from the Formics. But will he be able to survive school to fight the enemy when the teachers begin pitting him against other boys bent on killing him? (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card)

Does your setup interest you? Are you excited to write it? If so, go to the next step. If not, go back to sketching and developing the character, problem, and setting, then write another story setup. At this point, you should know some writers like to share the idea with other folks to test how interesting it is to potential readers and what questions they have. You don’t have to do that, but you certainly may.

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