Welcome to Lesson 1 Endless Story Ideas!
In this 3-day course, you’ll generate lots of story ideas that you can use later. And, more importantly, you’ll learn techniques for getting new story ideas whenever you need them.
Today, we’re going to focus on generating ideas for fictional characters.
Elements of a story
There are three elements that a story needs: a character, a setting, and a conflict.
A piece of writing is not a story unless something happens in it. If nothing happens, the piece might be a description or an article or a philosophical discourse, but not a story.
In a story, something has to happen. It happens to someone (a *character*), and it happens somewhere (*a setting*).
A *conflict* — or problem — is what makes something happen. We’ll talk more about conflict, and why it’s necessary, in tomorrow’s lesson.
How story ideas are born
Authors generally start with one of three elements (character, setting, or conflict) and use the one chosen to come up with the other two. There’s no right or wrong order to this process.
An idea for a conflict (for example, high school bullying), can lead both to character ideas (Who’s the bully? What motivates him? Who are the victims? How will they respond?) and also to setting ideas (What kind of school do these characters attend? Where is this school located? Is it a rough public school, a snooty private one?).
An idea for a setting (for example, a Mississippi cotton plantation just before the Civil War) can lead to conflict ideas (slaves forcibly separated from their children), and character ideas (a pregnant slave willing to risk her life to keep her unborn child).
Or an idea for a character (for example, a woman who is obsessed with neatness) can lead to conflict ideas (In what situation would the character’s obsession with neatness become a problem? In what situation would she face a mess she couldn’t control?), and setting ideas (the woman’s ultra-organized apartment with its elaborate systems of cabinets, compartments, and labeled containers).
Now, let’s start coming up with some character ideas that you’ll use over the next two days of the course to get ideas for conflict and setting.
5 ways to get character ideas
How do you get ideas for characters? Here are five different ways. EACH ONE of these is a gold mine.
***** Method # 1: People-watch. *****
Observe people who pass you on the street; go to a mall or a café and watch the people around you. Look at how they dress and present themselves, 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. Do they live by themselves or with children? Do they have pets? Do they cook a lot, or do they keep precooked food in their freezers? Are they planning a party? Or, are they possibly drinking too much alone?
Every one of these people can become a fictional character in your stories.
***** Method # 2: Get ideas from the newspaper. *****
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. What might have caused a particular woman to shoot her husband? What kind of person might she be, and what might her husband have been like?
The people you imagine are likely to be very different from the real people involved in the news item. That’s fine. They’re fictional characters that you have invented. Now you can use them however you like in your stories.
Wedding announcements and obituaries are another great place to look for character ideas. Use your imagination to fill in the blank space around the information the newspaper reports.
***** Method # 3: Get ideas from names. *****
A name triggers a complex set of associations, based on its sound and the way it looks on a page, based also on the people we have known or heard of with that name or similar names.
Take a moment to picture a woman named Gertrude, a woman named Donna, a woman named Veronique. What images do these names bring to mind? I imagine three very different women.
The name Gertrude makes me think of a sixty-year-old woman with graying chin-length hair pushed back behind her ears. She wears no makeup and has deep lines along the sides of her mouth. She is tall and lean — she takes long walks every day, and she has a swift, determined stride as if she’s always on her way to solve an urgent problem.
Your Gertrude is probably completely different from mine. That’s great.
Whenever you need character ideas, write down three names. Choose the names at random from a phone book or another directory, or just write down the first three names that occur to you.
Try to picture a person with each of the names you’ve chosen. Take notes on what you imagine. You’ve just come up with the seeds of three characters!
***** Method # 4: Mix and match. *****
Often, writers base characters on real people they know. That sometimes works well, but in other cases, it can be limiting. It can be hard to stop thinking of the real person and imagine the character separately.
Here’s a different method to try: create a character that mixes aspects of several people you know.
For example, you might invent a character who is partly based on your father, partly based on one of your high school teachers, and partly based on your boss at work. Or, you might base a character on your father, but make that character a woman. You could base the character’s physical appearance on a waitress you saw at a restaurant.
The result of each combination will be a character who shares similarities with all of these people but, at the same time, is different from all of them, unique.
***** Method # 5: Turn characters into more characters. *****
Each character you create can be the seed of more character ideas.
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 person attracts your character romantically or feels attracted by your character?
Brainstorm on questions like these, then develop the answers into new characters.
How to develop a character
Once you have an idea for a character, you can start developing the character by imagining more aspects of this person and his or her life.
Here’s a questionnaire that you can use to create character profiles. Feel free to change any of the questions or add new ones:
– What’s the character’s occupation?
– What’s the character’s family like?
– Is the character in a relationship? What’s his or her partner like?
– What is the character’s home like? His or her neighborhood?
– Does your character have hobbies? What does he or she enjoy doing?
– What are your character’s greatest strengths?
– What are his or her greatest weaknesses?
– What is his/her deepest desire?
– What is his/her greatest fear?
– What is something this character desperately wants to change about himself or herself?
– What is something this character doesn’t know about himself or herself?
Most of this information will not actually go into your stories, but it will help you to flesh out the characters in your own mind so that you can write about them in a convincing way.
Your answers to these questions can also become an endless source of story ideas. I will show you how that works in tomorrow’s lesson.
1) Start your Idea Journal. This is simply a place where you save your creative writing ideas so that you can come back to them later. Your Idea Journal doesn’t have to be in any special format. It might simply be a file on your computer, or you might prefer to use a blank book or notebook. If you’re already keeping a writer’s journal, you can do the Idea Journal exercises there.
2) Try at least *two* of the five methods we’ve discussed to get character ideas for your Idea Journal. Come up with ideas for at least *three* characters. Use the Character Questionnaire to write character profiles for all three of these characters.