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Writing Prompt #9

June 28, 2010

Where does story come from?

This question is a little different than asking where ideas come from. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. Creative minds are sparked by the most mundane observations or hints of emotions. But an idea is not story. Often, it’s just a situation, a setup. “What if people were arrested for crimes they hadn’t yet committed?” “What if everyone was born with a unique magical ability?”

Before an idea can move into the realm of story, it must be populated with characters. These characters have their own personalities and agendas. We all do. When these agendas come into conflict, you have a story. A simplistic approach, perhaps. But a timeless one.

So far we’ve used writing prompts to generate a lot of new ideas. At least, that was the goal. Hopefully, those ideas have led to new stories. For the next few weeks, we’re going to switch tracks a little bit and focus on the characters that populate those ideas, those worlds you’ve been creating.

For some, just creating a complex and multi-layered character is all you’ll need to launch into a new story, maybe even a novel, or a series of novels. Or perhaps discovering just the right character to drop into your world will be like dropping a Molotov cocktail into a roomful of fireworks.

To start, this week will focus on creating some of those characters in the first place. Subsequent prompts will help you flesh out those characters and make them real flesh and blood (or not) human beings (or not). Below are a few of the techniques I use when creating, or being introduced to, interesting new characters. If you’re already working with some characters but they feel stale or stuck to you, then this may be just the thing to unstick them.

Observation
This is the simplest technique. Most writers I know are natural people-watchers. We observe and process. It’s just what we do. If you’re sitting somewhere right now where you can see other people, pick someone at random and just observe (unobtrusively, of course). Without thinking about it, answer the following questions with the first things that come to mind:
– What was he doing just before arriving at this location?
– Why is she wearing the clothes she’s wearing?
– What is the most troubling thing on his mind at this very moment?
– Where is she going next?
– What does he want out of life?
– What is she most looking forward to right now?

Web Surfing
If you’re isolated right now, or don’t feel comfortable staring at a total stranger, then do some surfing. I’m addicted to Google Images and often stop by to enter random words, just to see what comes up.

Flickr is another good source for inspiration. Try this:
– Go to flickr explore
– On the right, where it says “Select a month”, click the dropdown then close your eyes and select something at random.
– When you see a calendar, again, pick a day at random. Or pick today!
– A lot of the images you see will be non-people. Find the first human (or not) and ask the same questions as above, if applicable.

Random Baby Names
This is a tried and trued technique made much easier by technology. You can find tons of baby name generators but I especially like babynamegenie.com.
– Pick a name at random
– Visualize this person at age 5.
– Visualize this person at age 35.
– Visualize this person at age 65.

Sometimes a good name alone evokes a certain type of character. Does the one you generated spring to life for you? If not, pick something else.

Astrology Charts
This one may take you from character creation all the way through development and story arc. You can find all sorts of astrology chart creation software and sites out there. Based on the birth date, birth time, and location you enter, you can get a full rundown of a person’s personality quirks and life issues at any given time.

new-astrology.com is a good, simple site you can use (and it’s free).

Enter the name of your character, perhaps from the previous suggestion above, and give this person a birth date and location of your choosing. If you have a blank slate character and don’t know anything about him, an astrology chart will fill in a lot of gaps. Or it may give you new wrinkles you hadn’t thought of before.

These are just a few choice techniques for creating new characters or fleshing out existing ones. Use them individually or use them all together. If it sparks your imagination, then it’s working.

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