Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

Well, it’s week three on my impromptu series of posts on creating non-human characters for your stories. We’ve already done animals and aliens, so this week, I want to focus on creating robots. Now I don’t want to waste too much time getting bogged down on the technical differences between robots, androids, cyborgs and so on, so for the sake of this post, I’m using the word ‘robot’ simply as an umbrella term for any kind of mechanical or artificial person. Suffice it to say there are important differences between robots, androids and cyborgs and you would be well advised to understand them before attempting to create one for your story.

If you’ve been keeping up to date on the last few posts, you will have noticed a common theme running through them: the idea of anthropomorphising (that is, giving human traits to) your non-human characters to to make them more relatable to your audience. However, as we have also seen, the extent to which you anthropomorphise your character and how you go about anthropomorphising your character will vary greatly depending on the kind of character you’re trying to create and what their purpose is in your story.

One of the first things to consider in creating your robotic character is a bit of the history of the character and the history of robotics for your fictional world in general. Of course, backstory is important in all character building, but for robots there are a few other important questions you will need to answer first. For example (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Are robots commonplace in this society or are they a new invention?
  • What is the function of robots in this society (e.g., slaves, free and equal citizens, problem-solving machines, childrens’ toys, etc)?
  • Are robots in general/your robot in particular built with fail-safes, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? If not, how are they kept from running amok? Indeed, are they under control? Many stories about robots revolve around this very theme.

Depending on your answer to these and similar questions, you may want to make your robot characters seem very human or very mechanical. However, if you’ve got any intention of making your robot a main character in your story, you will probably want to give them at least some human traits to make them relatable to your entirely human audience. This is a fairly absolute rule for all non-human characters (as we’ve seen in previous weeks), so you should consider giving your robot some or all of the following:

  • The ability to think, learn and reason independently. You’ll have a hard time creating a full-blown independent character without this.
  • Self-awareness and consciousness of its surroundings. Again, I think it would be exceptionally difficult (though not impossible) to create a proper robotic character without this human quality.
  • Emotions, dreams, empathy, and other such non-logical thoughts to motivate their actions etc. This of course, is certainly optional; many robots in science fiction tend to be very logical and emotionless but why not break with tradition?
  • Recognisable physical body parts. Of course, ‘recognisable’ does not necessarily mean that they have to be human-shaped. K-9 from the Doctor Who franchise is shaped like a dog and one episode of Star Trek: Voyager even featured a sentient WMD. K-9 is the more relatable of the two, of course, because we humans are used to relating to dogs. Dogs that we can talk to and play chess with, therefore, are highly relatable. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to interact with a WMD? (Don’t answer that).

The difference with robots is that your audience will already have quite particular ideas about how a robot “should” behave. This is, in part, due to the influence of sci-fi authors like Asimov, but is also due to the fact that robots and computers do exist in real life (though in a more limited fashion than you would expect in a sci-fi novel)We know, for example, that computers are logical to a fault and it’s important that your character reflects that peculiarly robotic quality if you want your audience to accept them. Abstract thinking, imagination and personal ambition is something beyond the grasp of most computers and robots. The trouble is, if you want your audience to care about your character, they’ll probably need to be capable of at least some of the above.

How you balance this contradiction will depend largely on the story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re trying to create but one of the best ways around this problem is how you use voice. Often you can create the illusion of a highly logical, robotic mind simply by the way your character speaks. Let’s consider two androids from the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise: Lore and Data.

Both androids are physically identical and were built by the same person. Only Lore, however, was capable of emotion and with this came a whole host of other human traits such as ambition, passion, deceitfulness and even megalomania. Lore’s human qualities were what made him such a great villain and were central to his role as a bad guy in Star Trek. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that he also talks like a human.

Haven’t you noticed how easily I handle human speech? I use their contractions. For example, I say can’t or isn’t, and you say cannot or is not.

Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Datalore’, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/114.htm

Data, on the other hand, lacks emotion and the other human qualities which turned Lore into a bad guy. In spite of this, he remains one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters. How is it that such an emotionless, logical, robotic character became so relatable (and far more likeable than his more human brother)?

Simple.

He’s not nearly as logical and robotic as he appears. It’s a trick, based largely on dialogue (and the occasional scene where he casually removes a body part) to make the audience believe that he is emotionless and logical because — after all — all robots are. He speaks in a “robotic” manner, such as calculating time intervals to the nearest second and not using verbal contractions, and so the audience believes that he is a machine and yet his goals and motivations are often very human indeed. For example, in ‘Pen Pals’, what motivated him to disobey Starfleet regulations and his captain’s orders if not compassion for the frightened child he had met? So, the writers have given Data a human quality (e.g., compassion) but have essentially tricked the audience into believing that they did not, because he appears robotic and makes the occasional claim that he is incapable of such traits. So, while is very important to strike the correct balance of human/robotic traits, the real trick with robots is how you portray them and thus convince your audience that the relatable and sympathetic character they are witnessing is, in fact, a machine.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got time for this week! But be sure to come back next when I’ll be continuing the series on non-human characters, this time focusing on mythical creatures.

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

If you’re serious about writing stories, you need to be serious about writing characters. No story is complete without them. This we know. We also know that your characters can make or break your story depending on how well they’ve been constructed. Apart from that, of course, your characters can be anybody you want them to be (in fact, the more variety the better, I find). You can make them male or female; black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight; nasty or nice or even human or non-human. It’s the non-human characters (particularly animals – I’ll come to the others next week) I want to talk about today.

Non-human characters are nothing new. They’re everywhere. We’ve all seen more dog or cat movies than we can care to remember, right? Meanwhile fans of shows like Doctor Who will be all too familiar with the concept of an alien protagonist. C.S. Lewis loved writing stories which featured talking animals, while his friend J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for Lord of the Rings, which follows the adventures, not of a human, but of a Hobbit. And in short fiction? Why, only last week, my regular readers were subjected to a story with a certain rodent protagonist.

I’ll be spending most of this week dealing with how to write animals in particular (because it’s ever so slightly more complicated), however, no matter what non-human species your protagonist may be, there is one golden rule you absolutely must keep in mind at all times. Ready? This is it:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, you need to anthropomorphise your character to one extent or another. Perhaps only a little, perhaps a lot, but to some extent, you need to give your non-human character certain human traits to make them relatable. At the very least, they will probably need to be able to think like humans in order to work through their goals, conflicts, epiphanies, etc. and possibly will need to speak like humans too (though there are numerous examples of strong animal characters who do not speak).

Of all the non-human characters you might create, animals are arguably the hardest. Unlike aliens or mythical creatures, animals are something we all see every day and science has studied them all from almost every angle, in terms of how they think, how they’re physically built and how they relate to others. While this might seem like a boon for us authors (after all, it should make research easier… right?) it can also be a bit of a pain if you’re remotely concerned about realism.

For example, in The Church Mouse, my protagonist was (you’ve guessed it) a mouse. In real life, mice have incredibly poor eyesight and find their way using their whiskers. Unfortunately, my story would not have actually worked quite as well if the mouse had been blind (for instance, he is seen examining a mouse trap in the second chapter to make sure it’s not potentially lethal). The easiest way around this is to do what I did — give him the five basic senses of a human. We can easily write that off as artistic licence. Apart from that, I left him physically as a normal mouse; walking on four legs, leaving his mess just lying around about him and having a strong sense of smell.

The larger problem, of course, was in the mind. Mice do not think the way humans do. I don’t for one second claim to be an expert on the psychology of rodents, but I’m pretty confident they don’t have goals, plans and motives like Mr. Mouse did – and even if they do, they certainly don’t think about them conceptualise them in rational terms like Mr. Mouse does. However, in order for your audience to relate to your animal character, you need to give them a mind which is close enough to being human for a human audience to relate to them. In the case of Mr. Mouse, the only truly rodentian quality I preserved was the way the smell of chocolate worked him up into a frenzy of instinctive, primal desire. This provided him with a motive. Beyond that, his thinking (his goals and epiphany; his opinions of the ‘idiot’ Landlord and even his concept of God) was quite human. It needed to be so for the audience to care about him.

Take a moth for instance, instinctively flying towards a flame. In all probability, moths cannot explain to themselves or anyone else why they are drawn to something as deadly as fire (do they even have a concept of what mortality is?). It’s pure instinct. But give a moth the rational mind of a human and suddenly you have a story about forbidden desires; about lust, danger, temptation and death. They know it’s not allowed. They know it’s bad for them but they just can’t resist. Suddenly we’re in Moth-Eden and the Moth-Devil is whispering in Moth-Eve’s ear,

‘You shall not surely die, for God knows if you go near the flame, you will be like God understanding good and evil… ‘ 

A word of warning, however. There is a danger in going too far with all of this. Too much anthropomorphism can lead to your character becoming a bit ridiculous, which will be disastrous for your story unless you happen to be writing a comic, cartoon or lighthearted family movie. Mr. Mouse, for example, never actually spoke. could have given him the ability to speak, but it was unnecessary. He never once interacted with another character (whether human or mouse) so it made more sense to simply write what he was thinking from one moment to the next. If I had him sitting on a little sofa in his mouse hole, reading the Sunday paper and sipping a cup of tea, it would have all got a little bit too Tom and Jerry... which is fine if that’s what you’re wanting to create but the more serious your story, the more understated I recommend you keep this. Remember, you only want to anthropomorphise them enough for the audience to understand and care about what happens to them. Think carefully, therefore, about how far along the anthropomorphic spectrum you place your character to avoid any unfortunate comic side-effects (or, if you are trying to write a cartoon, make sure you don’t underdo it and potentially create a boring character).

Phew!

Well, it had been my plan to write about other non-human characters such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures as well but I’m afraid that’s perhaps going to need another post! Be sure to swing back next week for that! In the meantime, why not get your notepad out and try your hand at knocking together an animal character or share your own insights in the comments section below.

Until next time!

A Few Words About Magic in Fiction

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.

 

What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.

5 Different Kinds of Writing Prompt

Sometimes when you’re stuck trying to come up with a story, it helps to have a little nudge to spark off your creativity. The internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with all kinds of writing prompts and other creative stimuli and it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, today I’ve listed a selection of prompts for fiction writers (please, use them and abuse them; maybe even show us your efforts in the comments section below) but what I really want to do is explain how I like to use these kinds of prompts and what I feel their relative strengths and weaknesses are. So, without further ado…

Opening lines

The idea behind opening line prompts is simple. You can write any story you like, as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. These can be great if you’re writing a short story or are just wanting to let your imagination run wild for a bit. Opening lines are good for this because the whole point of an opening line in any story is to grab the reader’s attention and flood them with curiosity about what happens next in a single sentence. Well, as the writer, you get to decide what happens next; thus, you have your prompt. I would generally shy away from using opening line prompts for a novel or other large and complicated project, because they usually require a lot more planning. You can rest assured Dickens did not come up with A Tale of Two Cities because someone asked him to write a story which opened with the words ‘It was the best of times’.

Anyway, why not try one of these?

  • David was not what he appeared to be. By day he was a humble civil servant but by night… 
  • Pat was the first human to set foot in [your place here] for more than thousand years.
  • We’d never had any trouble from the family next door until… 

Writing by Theme

This is my preferred kind of writing prompt for writing lengthier or more involved stories such as novels. You are given a single theme to work with but apart from that, your story can be just about anything. This gives you wide scope and still requires quite a bit of imagination on your part, but I sometimes find that more useful than the restriction you get with other kinds of prompts. Try a few of these:

  • Write a story about experiencing new things
  • Write a story about obsession
  • Write a story about ageing
  • Write a story about fathers and sons
  • Write a story about war

Characters

Another common writing prompt is to be given a rough description of a character you can work with. As I’ve probably mentioned before, all the best stories are character driven rather than plot driven, and from that point of view, having a character as your stimulus – before you’ve even thought of a plot – can prove very rewarding indeed. The main difficulty with this approach is quite simply knowing what to do with your character. S/he has to be brought out of her comfort zone to make a story happen so this certainly doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to making up a plot. It just gives you somewhere to begin that you might not have thought of yourself. Have a bash at writing a story about…

  • An intellectual 34 year old bus driver who dislikes enclosed spaces.
  • A hot-tempered 17 year old female singer who tends to talk too much.
  • A bigoted 84 year old man who works as a gas engineer and absolutely refuses to retire for anything. 
  • A kind-hearted 49 year old woman police officer whose worst nightmare is about to come true.
  • A talkative 5 year old girl who dreams of becoming a vet.

Titles

These work in a similar way to opening lines. You are given the story title; you have to write the story. This can be very helpful or very unhelpful, depending on the title. Something more obscure gives greater freedom but if you’re struggling with writers’ block, you might benefit more from something a little bit more specific. There are plenty of random title generators out there, some of which are nothing more than random adjective and noun generators. Others are a little bit more sophisticated than that. On the plus side, you can use titles as prompts for almost any kind of story. I’ve made up a few of both kinds for you to play with:

  • Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes
  • The Broken Sky
  • The Midnight Oil
  • The Wandering Cobbler
  • Rest for the Wicked
  • Jimmy Jones, Space Cadet!
  • The Madness Method
  • A Girl Named Grace

Pictures

Sometimes being told what to write isn’t what you need at all. You need to visualise something new to help you create new ideas, and for that, a picture might just be the answer. I don’t really find pictures much use for stimulating plot ideas particularly (though I have occasionally used them; for instance, my regular readers will testify to the fact I use the pictures on Story Dice to help me write my six word stories) but I do find them very useful indeed for coming up with new characters or settings. Photographs of people you don’t know or places you’ve never been instantly spark the imagination by forcing you to wonder, ‘who is this person?’; ‘what happens in that building?’; ‘what does that uniform s/he’s wearing represent?’ and so forth. A huge number of the characters and settings I’ve written have been based on making up things about random people and places I don’t know.

Not being much of a photographer, I haven’t got any pictures for you to use as writing prompts but I can highly recommend visiting websites like Pixabay for free images that you can use. Alternatively, try using some purpose built tools like Story Dice.

This is, of course, all just a taster. There are about a squillion other kinds of stimuli out there, from the ridiculously obscure (Oblique Strategies…) to others which aim to spoon-feed the author by almost writing the story for you. What matters is that if you use a stimulus, that you choose the right kind of stimulus for your project. This can be the difference between getting something out of it and not getting anything out of it so choose carefully. Writing with prompts can be a great way to train the writers’ imagination and it’s a healthy habit to get into – just as long as the prompt you choose doesn’t leave you more stuck than when you began!

What To Do When You Hate Your Story

The worst possible thing that can happen to any writer is for them to look at their work (especially their half finished work) and decide that it’s rubbish. Any idiot can overcome writer’s block with just a little bit of perseverance, but despairing over your story can be crippling. Not only will it halt you in your tracks, but it will probably make you want to give up writing altogether. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Quitting is NOT an option!

That includes quitting your current story, as well as quitting writing altogether.

There is a way out of this situation. The first thing you need to remember is that the despair you’re feeling over your current story is almost certainly all in your mind. If you’re anything like me, you can quite easily flit between thinking your story is the most important piece of literature in the history of the world ever to being downright ashamed of it in the space of a few hours. So the first step is to refuse to give up. You were once pleased with the shape your story was taking; you will be pleased again in the future if you persevere. So, once you’ve resolved to carry on writing no matter how bad things get, it’s time for some positive actions. These are a few tried and tested techniques that I find work for me.

Take a Break

Seriously, sometimes all you need is to do something other than writing for a little while. However the important thing to remember here is that you’re trying to clear away some cobwebs, so I would recommend against vegging out on the sofa brooding about what a terrible author you are. Trust me, that doesn’t help.

Instead, do something stimulating – as long as it’s not writing. The goal here is to release some happy hormones, so read a book, take a walk or whatever it is that makes you feel revitalised. Better yet, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Something that makes you feel like you don’t suck at life. Maybe you play a mean pinball. Go beat your high score, do a celebratory run around the living room then come back to your story.

Oh that reminds me, you also want to make sure your break ends at some point. Either set a time limit or make sure that your chosen recreational activity has a clearly defined finishing point so that you don’t forget to write altogether. I’ve done that before myself…

A Change is as Good as a Rest

If you don’t quite trust yourself to withdraw completely from writing your story but still feel like you could use a break… write something else.

To clarify, I do not mean give up on the story that’s giving you trouble. I simply mean spend half an hour or so writing something else, then come back to your story.

If it’s only your current project that’s getting you down, but you still feel like a perfectly capable story teller, then try your hand at some flash fiction or even poetry. Something completely different to get the juices flowing, but not so long that it swallows up your time working on your main project. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be fiction you write. Personally, I find writing this blog every week gives me a real shot in the arm.

If, on the other hand, you feel like such a failure at writing that you’re just about ready to quit and go back to the day job, try keeping a writer’s journal. Don’t try to be clever here. You’re not writing this to have it published, or even read by other human eyes. This is simply a constructive way of getting out all of those horrible, self-depreciating feelings that you have as well as tracking your progress and analysing where you might be going wrong.

Break Your Problem Down OR Draft Like Crazy

If you’re absolutely determined that a rest is not what you need, then try a change of approach. Broadly speaking there are two ways to go about this, depending on what stage of the writing process you’re at and how you like to go about writing a story.

If you feel like you’re up to your armpits in disjointed or poorly written scenes, it would be wise to go back to the old drawing board and consider where your story might be going wrong. Perhaps you need to flesh out your character profiles. Perhaps your protagonist lacks a satisfying character arc. Perhaps the pacing of your story is all off. Either way, it’s time to set aside the manuscript and get into the nitty gritty of your plan. If you already have a plan set out, this is a sensible place to start. If not, it’s maybe time you thought about putting one together.

If, on the other hand, you are working on a detailed plan when despair strikes, it might be that you’re overthinking the matter. If you find yourself lamenting how implausible your story is or how ‘it’s been done before!’ then this probably applies to you. The truth is, fiction is nearly always implausible; that’s why it hasn’t really happened. And fiction has nearly always been done before; there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Put your plan to one side for a while and try to write a draft of your story as freely as you can. Don’t edit (you might find Typewriter handy for that) and don’t worry about where it’s going. Be led by your muse and write whatever comes to you. Doing this can sometimes help you to imagine possibilities that never would have occurred to you simply by staring at charts and tables.

Whether any of this helps or not, remember Ernest Hemingway’s advice: ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now’. If you are despairing of your writing, remember that this is only a temporary setback. You cannot run out of ‘author-juice’, nor can the same story idea be good one day then bad the next. It is only a mindset that is holding you back, so persevere and win!

Dear Authors, Size Does Matter

These days, there is almost no limit (in either direction) on how long a story you can write. There is an audience out there for epic fantasy sagas consisting of seven or eight 300,000 word books; there is an audience for stories consisting of only a single, short sentence and there is an audience out there for almost everything in between. How and where you can publish these stories varies, but thanks to the magic of the internet, there’s always a way to get them out there to be read by millions.

Best of all, you’ve had a story idea! A superb story idea that you’re sure other people are going to love too! Well isn’t that just fabulous? I’m made up for you. Really. You won’t see the verdant steam of jealousy billowing from my ears at all. In fact, I’m so happy for you that I’m going to help you make sure you don’t ruin it.

‘Ruin it?!’ You cry, aghast and perturbed. ‘What could possibly ruin this little gem of mine?!’

Lots of things, but what I’m really thinking about today is the length of your story: writing a novel that should be a novella; a novella that should be a short story; a short story that should be a one hundred word story; a one hundred word story that should be fifty… or indeed, writing a fifty word story that should be a 550,000 word trilogy with a spin-off stage musical.

It’s important to decide well in advance what length of story you want to write for two reasons:

  1. It’s all part of knowing your target audience, especially if you’ve got any inclination to ever get your story published. Casual browsers of Twitter can read your six word story in no time; only dedicated bookworms and fans of your genre are likely to look at a seven book series.
  2. (and this is the reason I want to focus on the most today) Poorly chosen length can have a devastating effect on the pace of your story.

Pacing is important. A well paced story will both excite your audience at the appropriate times and make them feel involved in your character’s situation. I don’t want to get too technical in this post about the intricacies of pacing (perhaps I’ll write a post about it in the future), but suffice it to say that all good stories are made up of slow bits and fast bits, and it is this balance of slow against fast which creates the desired reaction in your reader. In the case of written fiction, the slow bits will be very detailed and will probably (although not necessarily) feature a lot of key dialogue. They are there to draw your reader into the character’s situation; to let your reader know exactly what’s going on for your character and to enable your reader to care about them. The fast bits are less detailed; it’s all about the action.

This is a difficult art to master at the best of times. You’ve probably read many a published novel or watched many a film even in which the pacing ruined it for you. Personally, I felt that the pacing in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire caused the story to drag a little too much for my liking. It’s not because it’s a bad story, or even because it’s poorly written. It’s a very good story in a lot of ways so please don’t shout at me. But by the time I got about half way through the second book, my boredom was complete. A story of that kind of pace really can’t afford to be seven books long. If he had stopped at one or two books… things could have been so very different.

It works the other way too, of course. While I’m focusing mainly on written fiction today, I want to briefly mention the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, because it makes the point so well. Dune is a great book. It’s very long but that’s okay, because the story is well paced. The film adaption of Dune is reasonably faithful to the book and yet… I almost got dizzy watching it. There was too much story crammed into a much-too-short film and it made the whole thing feel a bit rushed (there were also too many voice-overs to let us hear the characters’ thoughts, but I’ll save that rant for another day). If only it had been a bit longer (even if it meant breaking it up into a series of films), it could have been a really great retelling of that classic sci-fi novel.

Do you feel breathless just reading your story because the pace is so darn fast, or that you are struggling to cram everything you need to say into a restrictive word limit? Maybe it’s time to consider turning that short story into a novella or even a full length novel. Or do you feel that your narrative is dragging despite all your best efforts? Ask yourself seriously if your novel wouldn’t benefit more from being a short story or flash fiction instead.

I recently wrote a story entitled Little Thieves Are Hanged, which started out life as a 2,000-3,000 word short story. I was really convinced the story idea had potential and I was very pleased with the characters and sequence of events I had created but… try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make it interesting. It was about as much fun to read as a phone book but I couldn’t shake the idea that this was a good story.

I decided to start from scratch. Exactly the same plot but this time with a word limit of only 100 words. Let me tell you, I had some serious darling killing to do but within days I had a story I was proud to submit for entry to the National Association of Writers’ Groups’ 100 Word Mini-Tales Competition (which is why I haven’t published the story here; it’s still waiting to be judged).

Ideally, you want to settle on the right length of story before you write. You’ll save yourself an awful lot of time and energy if you do but the truth is, knowing exactly what length your story should be is often a matter of experience. Chances are you will occasionally find yourself getting it wrong the first time, like I did with Little Thieves Are Hanged. If that happens, don’t let it discourage you. Be brave and start again with a more appropriate word limit. I know it’s a drag, but you will probably find that it pays dividends.

I Love Scapple; You Should Too!

Sometimes when you’re in the planning stage of constructing your story, it can be difficult to keep track of all of your ideas – especially if you’re still undecided about what ideas you’re going to use and what ideas you’re going to discard. Figuring out timelines of individual characters, their relationships to one another or the history of your fictional world (particularly for us fantasy/sci-fi types) can be a complex process. I spoke before about how I like to brainstorm in a notebook, but notebooks have one major weakness when it comes to refining your story: they’re a bit on the small side. Even if they have a million pages, you still can’t spread out all your ideas in front of you at once; much less easily organise and rearrange them.

Corkboards or spreading out your notes on your kitchen table is one way around this, but they have limited room too (they can also get really untidy and that can leave you feeling more confused than ever). There is plenty of mind-mapping software out there, of course, but its usefulness can be limited if you’re experimenting with many different ideas at once, because they force you to make logical connections between each note. Thankfully, the good people who gave us Scrivener have done it for us again.

At first glance, Scapple by Literature and Latte might appear to be just another piece mind-mapping software claiming to possess the secret of eternal creativity but in actual fact, it is quite different in a few important ways; ways which make it the ideal tool for those of us who have a million different ideas they need to organise and have been unable to find a large enough whiteboard or a thick enough packet of post-its.

weescapple1‘Freedom’ is the word that comes to mind when I think about Scapple. Freedom to organise all your thoughts (however many, and however big or small) into whatever order you want, in whatever style you want and with remarkable ease. One of the main freedom-endowing features Scapple has is that it allows you to place notes anywhere on the board, which you may choose to connect or not connect to other notes as you see fit. If you want to link your notes together, you can do it using arrows, two-way arrows or dotted lines. You are also not bound to work from a single central note as you are in mind-maps (though you certainly could do this if you wanted to). Each and every note you add to your board will be a free and independent note, which you can connect to or disconnect from as many other notes as you wish – assuming you choose to join any of your notes together at all. You can also easily surround some or all of your notes with a ‘background shape’, which keeps them together. All of this makes it ideal for experimenting with many different ideas at once.

weescapple2If you’re like me, you probably find that colour-coding your notes is a big help when you’re coming up with new ideas. Fortunately, it’s easy to customise the style of your notes to make them look exactly how you like them. The bulk of the customisation Scapple offers is available through the non-intrusive ‘Inspector’, which includes two tabs: one for customising the note style of whatever note you have selected at the time, and another for customising the format of the overall board (background colour/image, default font, etc). By default, Scapple comes with a few pre-made note styles that you can easily select by simply right-clicking the note(s) you want but you will probably find yourself quickly wanting to create your own note styles that you can re-use. Fortunately, it’s easy to create re-usable note styles by simply creating one bubble in the style you want and then choosing ‘New Note Style from Selection’ in the Format->Note Style menu. Not only that, but you can also redefine pre-existing note styles and even import note styles from another Scapple board (saving you the hassle of re-creating your custom note styles every time you start a new board).weescaple4 You can also add images as notes simply by dragging the file from your File Explorer directly onto the board and of course, as this little gem was indeed conceived by the same minds which gave us Scrivener, you can easily import notes from Scapple into Scrivener simply by dragging them into Scrivener’s Binder.

For me, however, Scapple’s usefulness doesn’t end once I’ve refined my basic idea. Once I’ve decided what story I am going to write, Scapple can be of further use for creating useful diagrams such as timelines. For the novel I’m currently working on, I used Scapple to create a timeline which allowed me to mark off where individual story beats came in and how this related to the progress of the protagonist’s character arc. This allowed me to see the whole functioning skeleton of my story, with all its individual elements working together in a format which was very clear and easy to work with. Additionally, the freedom Scapple gives you to add notes anywhere on your board meant that I could still easily add notes-to-self on any points which I was concerned about (of which there were a few!).

weescapple3

I really would like to come up with a few negative points for the sake of giving a balanced review of this product, but its simplicity, ease of use and freedom to do what you want with it makes it a really great product with very few cons that I can think of (incidentally, I’ve also found a few other non-fiction related uses for it). It’s available for Mac and PC and is also available as a 30-day free trial (that’s 30 days of use, so you don’t need to feel under pressure to use it every day for a whole month) so why not give it a go? If it’s a way to organise and plan your novel that you’re looking for, I’m sure that Scapple won’t disappoint you.