Yesterday we took your character’s dreams and dashed them in the middle of the story.
Today I want you to take your character, and their desire and cripple them not once, but twice. Of course you get to reward them with a little win in the middle.
Give your character a goal, frustrate them, let them make some progress but let it come at a cost.
- Think about Star Wars, the great story-outliner’s tool: Luke wants to get off this boring little planet but his aim is frustrated by obligations and lack of opportunity. When his family is murdered he finally acts. His next aim is to find and rescue the sexy princess (spoiler alert: Ew!). Problem: she’s on the most heavily defended, most technologically advanced ship in the fleet of the all-powerful empire. Somehow he succeeds. Yay! BUT, oh no, they sacrifice Obi-Wan, his mentor, at the same time. Now Luke has a new mission: overthrow the empire. Fail, Strive, Succeed but at a cost, pursue next part of his ‘want’. [Check out this Narrative Map of the Hero’s Journey]
- Put your character in an impossible situation. Let him dig his way out only to fall into a new pit. Only this time he knows a bit more about himself and what it’ll take to climb out. (Friends? A rope? Strong hands?) Let the character use what they learned in the first part of the middle, to achieve what they need to do next.
- It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom or drama. If you’re writing humor you can still do this. Frustration is funny. Even throwing in a moment of tragedy is acceptable in comic writing. In fact, if you’re making your reader laugh until 2/3 of the way through the story, they won’t even notice the knife in your hand until you’re sliding it between their ribs. Bam! Will that pack an emotional punch?! (Sitcoms do this from time to time. Aren’t you surprised to find yourself suddenly sobbing during your favorite 30 minute comedy?)
This week’s prompts have all been about exploring character needs. Without a desire, why are we reading about your character? Without an obstacle to that desire, where’s the story?
Use these prompts to spark a few stories of your own. Don’t forget to leave a comment and let me know which ones worked best for you, and be entered to win a copy of my Time To Write Workshop.
Prompt 1 — Filthy Lucre
Your character needs money, and fast! Why? How? You tell us!
Prompt 2 — Gimme Shelter
One of the most primitive needs of any person is a need for shelter. This prompt explores that in ways from primitive to more civilized.
Prompt 3 — Feed Me, Seymour!
Staying with the basic needs of humanity: your character is hungry. Why? What’s stopping them from ordering in? Tell us the story.
Prompt 4 — Belonging
Now that you’ve explored the most basic needs of your characters, what next? Well, let’s assume they’re safe and fed. What do they want now? To belong. Tell this story today.
Prompt 5 — Appreciate Me!
Beyond mere belonging, people need to be appreciated for who they are. Write the story of someone fighting to be appreciated.
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This week our themes are focused on characters’ needs. Today, something above a survival need, but something that is nevertheless deeply important:
Write a story about a character who desperately wants to belong
- This can be any kind of relationship story: love, friends, family, career.
- The character must NEED to belong so badly that they’re willing to go through hell to pursue their need.
- Your story should take your character somewhere: will they change to fit in, or will they realise that’s too big a step for them. Will they be OK with that (in either case)?
- Show us why your character needs to belong and how that need drives her every action.
- Put obstacles in her way as often as possible and show us about your protagonist’s character by showing us how he/she reacts to the obstacles.
Continuing this week’s theme of POV prompts, here is today’s prompt:
Write a story from the Third Person, Omniscient perspective
- This is the perspective you know from all the great writers (Dickens, Tolstoy, Pratchett…): the author can say anything, pop inside any (or all) character’s heads, travel backwards and forwards in time, insert herself and her own commentary onto the page.
- Have some fun with this. Take a scene and tell it from one character’s perspective, then leap into another character’s head and give their read on the situation.
- Remember to show the first character’s continuing physical behavior from where the second character is standing after switch to their perspective. Your reader will know how the first character’s behavior reflects his thoughts. Will the second character understand or misconstrue?
- Try out your authorial prerogatives and make a comment about what’s going on (think of that moment when a TV character turns to the camera and talks directly to us, the audience). What does this do to the story? Do you like it?
This can get quite complicated (which is why it works so well for novels). Don’t worry about writing a complete, polished story today. Just play with the POV and see what options are available to you.
This time, let’s come out of our own heads and get inside someone else’s.
Write a story in the Third Person, Limited perspective
- Third person limited is a lot like first person except you’re not writing “I”. By that I mean you can only show the thoughts of one person.
- A good way to remember not to show other characters’ thoughts is to imagine your story as a TV show or movie. All characters apart from the one whose point of view you’re following, must walk across the screen, being observed by him (or her)
- Try not to use ‘he thought’, or ‘she felt’, or ‘he wondered’. Take a look at this writing advice (allegedly by Chuck Palahniuk) which has some great examples of how to avoid this trap — and why it’s so much more effective when you do
Today we’re concentrating on a character: in particular the kind of person who would have been known to me, when I was a child, as “a little old lady”.
Write a story featuring a little old lady
- Remember, in the days before hair dye and facial peels and gym memberships and HRT—in the days of hard physical labor from dawn to dusk—being a ‘little old lady’ could start at any age from your mid-forties! Those days were NOT that long ago…
- Feel free to use your little old lady to play to type (cast her as a fairytale witch or a helpless old woman) or against type (have her, I don’t know, swimming from Florida to Cuba without a shark cage…).
- The interesting part of this story is going to be perhaps less about how this character changes, and more about how our perception/expectations as readers are changed during the story.
One of the best pieces of advice I received for writing short stories was to make your character want something. Once your character wants something you have a structure for the whole story: put obstacles in their way and see how they react.
Create a character who wants something really badly, then thwart them at every turn.
- This story can be realistic, or high-fantasy; historical or far-future; tragic or comic. The strength of this prompt is that it focuses on character. No matter where you set it, you can make it realistic by having your character react to being thwarted in a way that feels familiar to your reader.
- You get to decide whether your character gets what they want at the end or not.
- Read Fight City (An Irish Jimmy Gallagher Novelette) by last week’s guest prompter James Scott Bell for a really fun example of how you can spin out this kind of ‘thwartage’ for a whole novella (it’s only $0.99 but you may also borrow it for free under Kindle lending plan).
- Here’s a short-short story from Mary Robinette Kowal that demonstrates how a simple ‘want’ can sustain a whole story and help create rounded characters out of somewhat surprising source-material. (I highly recommend the Writing Excuses podcast that Mary co-presents with Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler. It doesn’t often focus on the short story, but it is always inspiring and only 15 minutes long.)
Continuing on from yesterday’s theme of giving you an element of the story you must use, today I’m giving you a character. I’m seeding some hints about this character into the prompt and you should take them where ever they lead you.
Sam Chase has just left a meeting with the big boss. Sam has been offered a dream position — or at least a position that would have been a dream if it had been dangled out there two years ago. But lately, Sam has been beginning to understand that there’s more to life than ambition, career, advancement, the trappings of success. Oh let’s be honest: it’s been coming on ever since last summer. If the only constant is change, Sam thinks, I’m a walking illustration.
Write Sam’s story.
- In case you hadn’t noticed, I was very careful to use no pronouns in that blurb about Sam. Sam can be male or female, at your whim.
- Will you explain what happened “last summer” or keep it mysterious? If you do explain it, will your story start there? End there? Mention it as a big reveal at the climax?
- What will Sam choose? Just because we’re tapped on the shoulder by our better angels, doesn’t mean we always make the right choice. But then again, sometimes we do. What will YOUR Sam do?
In today’s story, we’re going to focus on a very particular type of descriptive writing
Creating a Character Your Readers Can “See”
As you write about your character today, make sure he or she is three-dimensional. You don’t have to tell me how tall they are or whta they weigh, but paint a picture of them that is so vivid that the reader can’t help but form a mental imgae of them
- Describe the way they walk.
- Have your character use a signature gesture or two.
- Show how they move their body.
- Allow other characters to notice things about them.
- For this exercise free to steal mannerisms from an actor or a TV character (I’m thinking Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes or, perhaps even better, Martin Freeman’s long-suffering Watson).
- Make your choice of words carefully: see if you can make them reflect what you are trying to convey without using adverbs (‘stalking’ instead of ‘walking quietly, like a predator’).
And when you have written your story, log in and post your success in The Victory Dance group or simply comment on this post and let the congrats come flying in.
It is day 13 of StoryADay September and you have almost made it to the halfway point. How’s it going? What challenges are you encountering? What are you learning about your writing habits? Leave a comment, or get in on the discussion in the forums.
Short stories can feature just one main character. You can totally get away with it. But not all the time.
Play With Your Secondary Characters
What is a secondary character? It’s any character who doesn’t matter to the story if you take out the protagonist.
Everything the secondary characters do in this short story should relate to the protagonist in some way:
- The villain forces the main character to pursue a course of action
- The best friend helps the main character figure out what she should do
- The sweet character storms off, showing up how much of a jerk the main character is being.
As you write your story today make sure to include secondary characters and pay attention to everything they do. if they start to wander off-script, into areas that do not directly relate to your protagonist, stop them! (Promise them their own story tomorrow, if you have to!)
And when you have written your story, comment on this post and let the congrats come flying in.