Using Character to Generate Story

Entry points into creating stories differ for everyone. I’ve mentioned before that I come at stories from the characters, and that I write character-driven books. What this means is that, rather than “what if this cool idea” or “what if this cool magic,” I start with “what if this character premise.”

My novels are high concept, but my entry point to those ideas begins from a character and spirals out from there—and with every piece of the story I craft, I always go back to character.

Looking at some of my finished books, say with Tea Princess Chronicles, I started with the idea of a princess who quits and ends up managing a magical tea shop. For Afterstorms, I started with a woman who is both a badass sorceress while actively doing the work of mothering and also gets to have a romance. For my YA space opera, I basically asked, what if Gundam actually had a girl as the protagonist who gets to pilot the super awesome space mech?

And so on. The types of stories those became, the world-building, the themes borne out in them (things like what it means to do something in the world that matters and incremental activism, how societies try to make women lesser, and embracing the power that comes with upending people’s expectations and not walking a proscribed path, respectively)—they all started from those premises .

But how do I translate an idea for a character into a story?

Broadly, to know how the story arc works, I need to know who the character is at the beginning, which tells me who they are at the end—or vice versa. If they’ve come into their power at the end, then at the beginning they believe themselves powerless. They’re insecure about their place in the world at the beginning; they’re confident at the end.

And then I figure out what choices, and what actions to hang them on, would bring them from that beginning point to the ending. But that still takes a few leaps; albeit ones I can make these days out of longstanding practice, because figuring out character is really easy for me. It’s what I read for and what I write for. That said, being very into character development is not the same as being able to plot, so let’s talk about how you get from one to the other.

Here’s one of my favorite tactics.

Back when I was doing a lot of theater, one of the techniques I learned for how to dig into character was Uta Hagen’s questions. With some additions, these can be useful not just for understanding character, but understanding the relationship between character, world-building, plot, and story. These are the questions I focus on, with my adaptations.

What does your character think they want? (Let’s say, to be a hero.)

What do they actually want? (Hmm. How about security? They want to be a hero because they think the respect of masses will make people value them and protect them.)

What are the given circumstances? (Our character is alone, because war has destroyed the political and physical infrastructure of their world.)

What is preventing them from getting what they want? (An occupying force.)

What will they do—and what can they do—to get what they want? (Gather a ragtag crew to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.)

My parentheticals there aren’t the most original—they are in fact deliberately tropey as shit; can you tell I’m an epic fantasy reader and shounen anime fan?—because that’s not the point at this stage. The point is highlighting the fundamentals that make up the core of the story, and the logic of the story, to flesh out with what makes it yours.

Answering these questions doesn’t create an entire story on its own, but it does give me the basis for the subsequent questions I need to answer to make a story happen.

Like, okay, the protagonist is going to need a team—how do they assemble it? What unique skills does our protagonist have that would actually be useful in overthrowing an army, or attract people to be willing to work with them, and how do they acquire those skills? If they haven’t taken up arms before the start of the plot, why now? What changed, and why did it change?

Let’s take the starter questions in order.

The first two questions (What does your character think they want, and what do they actually want?) are key for interesting character development, because this is how you change expectations for not entirely predictable plots. What your protagonist thinks they want changes, and they get what they actually want (or need, which is an important distinction somewhat tangential to this post) in a way they could not have dreamed of at the beginning but that their actions throughout the plot nevertheless make inevitable.

Given my hypothetical parentheticals there, let’s say your protagonist discovers sacrificing themselves for the sake of a corrupt government might make them a hero in the public eye given the levels of propaganda management, but it would be empty and wouldn’t actually make them safe. But they make friends along the way who will protect them for who they are at whatever cost, so they choose to save their imperfect friends rather than the figureheads of society. They don’t become a hero at large but to the only people that matter, and they get their security in the way that’s meaningful to them. That sort of thing. (If you’re looking for practical published examples, Brandon Sanderson excels at this.)

The important part of “the given circumstances” question is that they have to be personal to the character. It’s not just “war has torn apart a country” but “war has left the character alone, and the character desperately wants to not be alone.”

Firstly, because if the stakes aren’t personal, nobody cares. Secondly, this is how your world-building and your point-of-view character are inextricably linked.

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum (or a white room >_>); they are born in their environments, and those environments shape and affect them even if they don’t define them. If they don’t, then the character won’t feel compelling but vague. If you think your character could exist exactly the same born into an entirely different fantasy world, they’re probably not sufficiently defined. (See also a unique challenge inherent to AU fanfic: how to make the characters still make sense to the reader when the setting they were created with is entirely substituted.)

Asking what actions the character can take, and the reasons they need to take them (what prevents them from getting what they want), are where we come to plot.

What are the tools your protagonist has to change their situation?

If your character’s a sorceress, maybe she’s solving problems using magic—in which case the readers may need to understand more about how magic works, be it the system’s rules that they’re breaking or that numinous magic is fickle so having to rely on it working is A Problem—for your stakes to work. If they’re a political operator, readers probably need to know how the politics work, so we can feel satisfied when they’ve managed something tricky without needing an explanation that slows pacing in the moment of why what they did was so clever.

Tea Princess Chronicles was my first time writing about a protagonist who isn’t some kind of magical martial arts action heroine. Her strength, established in chapter one, is listening, which I physically manifest through how I depict the fantasy tea ceremony.

For another example, I love Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series for being stories of action and adventure and all kinds of magical battle shenanigans where the plots ultimately always hinge on the “nice” protagonist meaningfully exercising compassion.

As for the question of what actions a protagonist will take—that’s where the story is.

This answer doesn’t have to be, “what would drive them to kill the person oppressing them,” as is so common in epic fantasy; it can just as easily be, “they will focus their time and energy on building relationships.” See Mirage by Somaiya Daud for a great example of this one: her protagonist could easily become a violent rebel or a pawn of the oppressive regime, yet what she chooses is neither of those—she makes another path that is ultimately the only one that makes sense for her character.

Given a person in a particular situation who can do certain things, what will they choose to do, and why, and what does that mean? That’s the core of it all.

orange cat and black cat lying on different parts of me and looking incredibly smug
disparate elements working in tandem toward a narratively coherent goal aka trapping me
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One thought on “Using Character to Generate Story

  1. Pingback: Agency Failures in Plotting | Casey Blair

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