Day Seven – Characters Must Be Driven
I’m not talking about chauffeuring here – although there are plenty of stories involving characters who are drivers or people being driven around:
Anyone really with a driving licence…
- Passengers can be
Government or non-government officials/employees
The list is long… and once you start adding other types of drivers – train, tram, ferries, – even horse and cart… it gets longer.
I’m talking about the advice nearly every writing website gives you concerning characters and using these definitions of driven:
- To have or feel pressure applied to act in a certain way – a need, a desire,
- To be in a certain emotional state eg. he/she/it drives me crazy – drives me to distraction
This is advice based on Joseph Campbell’s book (obligatory reading for many creative writers) The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
There are many permutations and combinations of this idea – certain genres like sci-fi, fantasy and adventure movies, with stories drawing on mythology,’s legends and fables, fit into the formula well. Hence the popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, the Indiana Jones movies, JK Rowland’s, Harry Potter, and the Star Wars, Marvel and DC movies…
The advice works for other writing too if you remember the aim is to hook the reader into empathising and caring about the characters.
- Most stories grow from character – the character needs something or wants something –
- What stops them being successful – what obstacles must they encounter and triumph over for success (or maybe failure!).
Your main character must want something, sets out on a journey to get it, and by the end of the story, after overcoming obstacles, the character is changed but has achieved the aim or an altered or scaled-down success.
Novels often have an antagonist (adversary/enemy) as well as a protagonist (hero/good guy/woman) and a small or large cast of others relevant to the story/ back story/ sub-stories.
Short stories can’t have a huge range of characters, they often only have one the reader can get ‘to know’ and sometimes the journey to change is internal, inside the protagonist or main character’s head, and the obstacles to overcome, imaginary, prosaic or ephemeral.
However, memoir and creative non-fiction must have the main character to focus on and the most popular ones in recent years have been on a journey similar to Campbell’s heroes.
They write a slice of life where they have overcome grief, addiction, ill health or some other personal tragedy by soldiering on or challenging themselves to work their way through and survive the catastrophe – older and wiser/healthier/happier/perhaps they have found a new love – whatever has happened, they have changed!
All of the above is the usual or expected structures but creative writing is whatever the creator decides and the old saying know the rule before you break them applies. If you are confident, break the rules, surprise the reader.
Certain tropes and structures work, as can the surprises and deviation from the usual format. Sometimes the underlying character expectations remain, the change is subtle or the protagonist dies to achieve the aim, or before achieving it.
Where Can You Get Character Ideas?
Some of the following suggestions ARE NOT ADVISABLE while the world is dealing with COVID19, but once this dystopian nightmare ends – as it surely will – in the words of the BBC I remember as a child “normal service will be resumed”.
(When TV transmission was in its infancy there were many times apologies came over the airwaves. Nowadays it is Telstra or Optus apologising for Internet drop out.)
Who do you pass on the street? See on public transport, waiting at bus stops, or passing by your window. (This you can do now!)
Go to a shopping centre or a café and watch the people around you. Maybe even strike up a conversation and learn their stories a la Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade.
- Make notes about who you see and build a description.
- How do they dress and present themselves?
- Look at their facial expressions, their gestures, how they move, how they interact with each other.
- Try to imagine their lives.
- Watch people in line at the supermarket – listen to their conversations, pay attention to what they’re buying.
- Speculate – do they live by themselves or with children? Do they have pets? Do they cook a lot, or do they keep pre-cooked food in their freezers? Are they planning a party? Or, are they possibly drinking too much alone?
As I’ve mentioned before – ask questions, observe details, let the writer’s curiosity gene work overtime.
Every one of these people can become a fictional character in your stories.
It is amazing how story ideas or memories triggered will emerge once you start writing down the answers to questions.
2: Get ideas from the newspaper.
You may have to search the local papers or magazines for alternative stories while the COVID19 crisis is filling every facet of news media.
Newspapers are a rich source of character ideas. When you read about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, try to imagine the people behind the headlines. There are also lots of images of people, subjects to be used in stories, in advertisements, brochures, leaflets, online sites…
There are even plots to explore, expand or adapt.
- What might have caused a particular woman to poison her husband?
- What kind of person might she be?
- What about her husband?
- Why did the house invasion happen
- Why was a particular item stolen
- Where could the person reported missing be?
- Why did the teenager run away?
The people you imagine are likely to be very different from the real people involved in the news item.
We all perceive people and life differently because we bring our own experience and prejudices. The fictional characters you have invented can be used however you like – take the bones of a court case, or an event and expand it, perhaps give it a different outcome.
Wedding announcements and obituaries are great places to look for character ideas and names.
Obituary columns often give a potted history of someone’s life, highlighting challenges overcome and their achievements. All of this detail can be tweaked but you may find a ready-made historical novel or plot.
People never seem to tire of stories about kings and queens, war heroes, even famous villains and each story whether a novel, play or film is different.
3. Get ideas from names
Have you ever heard a name and been intrigued by its origins, or laughed aloud, or pitied the poor girl/boy stuck with that monicker?
Maybe you are one of those stuck with a nickname you hate or have memories of convoluted pronunciations of your family name.
A name triggers a heap of thoughts, associations, memories based on its sound and on the people we have known or heard of with that name or similar names.
You might even have a relative or ancestor with a name begging to be immortalised in a story so that readers will be intrigued or remember your character.
If you have a description of a character remember to choose a name that fits.
What name might suggest a seventy-year-old woman with greying hair pushed back behind her ears. She wears no makeup and has worry lines along the sides of her mouth. She is slim and fit from taking long walks every day in comfortable walking shoes. She strides as if on her way to solve an urgent problem.
Miss Jane Marple anyone?
The middle-aged sleuth’s creator was writer Agatha Christie. Along with Jane, Agatha may be considered an old-fashioned name conjuring an older woman, as does Mavis, Mildred, Amelia, even Elizabeth and Margaret. Some names have travelled time well, along with their other connotations (Liz, Betty, Meg, Millie…)
Part of a writer’s job is almost ordained by the name chosen for the character because of cultural knowledge and expectations. Soapie stereotypes work for a reason in some genres.
However, originality is always a goal and we are in an age where people eschew handing down family names and may call their children after celebrities, sportspeople or even made-up names.
Remember Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence Geldof? Also Peaches, Fifi Trixibelle and Pixie Geldof…
You can choose names at random from a phone book or another directory (Baby Naming books are still popular). Or write down a list of names that occur to you and think of how you can place one of those people in your story, or what kind of story does their name suggest.
4: Mix and Match
You can base characters on real people you know (wreak revenge by killing off the rude neighbour or that relative you don’t like…) and this can work by changing their name and some aspects of their appearance.
However, it may be difficult to stop thinking of the real person and imagine the character separately and this can limit your imagination. It is better to mix aspects of various characters you have made notes about and create a new person from random observations plus aspects of people you know/knew/read about/saw on documentaries etc.
You can invent a character partly based on your father, one of your high school teachers, and your boss or ex-boss. You might base a character on a male you know, but make the character female who looks like a waitress you saw at a restaurant or a commuter.
By combining characteristics in unexpected ways, you make your characters seem more three-dimensional, memorable, and unique.
This mix and match will even work for life stories or memoir.
Truth or honesty is a given when writing about close family members or someone important in your life story but no one’s memory is infallible. There may be scenes you want to create to make the story interesting but you can’t remember the exact details of some distant relatives, or doctors, dentists, teachers… yet these people figure in your memoir so description and dialogue must be created to make the story come alive.
Experiment and have fun choosing strong and striking qualities to create unique characters for your stories.
5: Turn your characters into more characters
Finally, remember that each character you create will give you even more character ideas. A protagonist needs an antagonist, a character may need a family, a partner, a business associate…
- Who is in your character’s family?
- What are your character’s parents like?
- Who is your character’s best friend?
- Who is your character’s enemy?
- What kind of person gets on your character’s nerves?
- What kind of romantic attachments will your character have?
- Has your character a secret -( secrets are great material for fiction, as are fears and phobias)
- What has your character done that s/he doesn’t want others to find out about
- Is there something shameful in the past?
- Is there some aspect of their personality they don’t like?
- Are they pretending to be someone they’re not?
Brainstorm and develop new characters from the answers.
Making Character Profiles
There are many character profile questionnaires available online – a simple Google search will spoil you for choice. There is one that Proust used produced by Gotham Writers, USA.
All of the available questionnaires have one aim – to ensure your know your character as well as you know yourself!
Building a profile will make it easier for you to write the character and know how they will react in whatever situation you put them in. No second-guessing or unbelievable shocks for the reader.
The last thing you want is disappointed readers saying, ‘he/she wouldn’t do that’ or ‘he/she wouldn’t go there’…
You have invited readers into your character’s world and they will care deeply about your character and what happens to them.
Writing a mystery novel is a challenge to your talent and your fortitude. To decide on a crime, to work out the solution, to delineate your characters and create their backgrounds take equal amounts of inspiration and concentration. Putting all these elements together to produce a page-turner takes time and more time… you will find that one hour at the typewriter is comparable to a week spent building a stretch of highway across the Arctic.
In the classical form, white-collar crimes, kidnappings, heists etc., are often used as subordinate crimes leading to murder, or as motives for murder. As the primary crime… not nearly as dramatic… A murderer has more to lose than… an embezzler. The stakes are higher, the criminal… more desperate… the drama more tense.
In mysteries, the cause is desperation and the effect is disaster… the writer has to direct all… attention to the facts and impressions that deal directly with the crime and its solution.
- Cause – the reason for the story, the crime – is the idea for the book.
- Effect – how the story develops – is the plot… forming the backbone of the book.
- The plot becomes alive – turns into a story – when you introduce the characters who cause the events, and, in turn, are affected by them.
… you need a structure. This means setting up your priorities – which elements are primary, and which are secondary in importance.
To begin with, then, you need six elements: three main characters, a crime, a motive and a solution. Now set the scene…
Your Turn To Write
Here are some ideas/characters for you to create a story:
- a professional dog-walker.
- a homeless person.
- a deaf person
- a contestant on a reality TV show
- an imposter
What is something your main character wants?
- to buy a cottage by the sea
- to romance a neighbour.
- to reunite with a partner
- to break the family curse
- to be a vet
What does your character have to do to get what he/she wants?
Why is there a sense of urgency?
What are three problems/obstacles the character must overcome?
How will they do it?
What will happen?
- Possible Ending 1 (if your character gets what he/she wants):
- Possible Ending 2 (if your character doesn’t get what he/she wants)
Here is a short story under 900 words, I wrote in the form of a monologue after being given the picture of a woman sitting reading as a prompt funguys a short monologue