Generating Ideas for Writing - Starting with Character

Hero, anti-hero, villain, superhero, good guy, bad guy, femme fatale, evil genius, mad scientist, reluctant hero, etc. etc. There are a lot of boxes that we have to put people in, and that's because we find people interesting and important.


There are many ways to generate ideas for stories. Recently I have been starting with very basic plots and then building them up, adding what I need. One of the things that I need to add are characters. You can also do this in exactly the opposite way. You can start with a character and give them a plot. Today I want to explore coming up with interesting and intriguing characters. Where when you hear a very simple description you say, "Tell me more."

A lot of people seem to like to start by deciding a character's gender and age. I don't want to do that, because those aren't very intriguing to me, they can be added in later. So . . . what do we do instead? I am going to start by looking at their role in the world.

I think that some roles are intriguing by themselves. If I say President of the United States, or Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, or head of the FBI, or CEO of Microsoft, or African warlord, or a bunch of other things; I am immediately interested because those are positions I would like to know more about. Whichever person occupies that role will be interesting to me, at least for awhile. I still need to add all sorts of things to the character to give them depth, but I don't need the depth to know that people are going to be interested.

There are other roles in the world. Some of them are fascinating by the fact that they are inherently attached to one of these fascinating roles. The son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother, friend or frenemy of the President or a warlord are interesting. These offer unique perspectives, which are explored less often than the direct roles themselves.

There are also roles that are certainly very necessary in the world, but they are familiar and not so fascinating. Janitor, garbageman, interior designer, etc. Now, some people are going to be interested because that is what they do or what they are interested in. Some people just really like interior design, but not everyone. People who hate African warlords will watch a show about an African warlord everyday, because they are fascinated. People who hate interior designers, they won't watch a show about an interior designer. So . . . how could we take one of these roles and add some fascination to it?

We could make the role more fascinating by saying something like this person is the CEO of an interior design company, but then our focus has shifted. They are a CEO of something, not an interior designer. We could say the daughter of the President is an interior designer, but that does the same thing. They are the daughter of the President and have some job. They are an interior designer for the mob. There is something. Being an interior designer is central to this role, it is not just an add-on. What someone does combined with a unique setting or context. That may be a good formula.

A janitor for the mob. A garbage man for the mob. I think you could add mob onto any role and make it interesting, but still have the role as the central piece. This creates instant fascination. Can we do it with other contexts? A janitor on mars. A garbage man on a spaceship. Those seem like character-settings that could be made into series because they are inherently interesting.

What about depth. Let's say we have an interior designer for the mob. How do we make this into more of a real person. Some people would just start writing and make it up as they go. That is an aspect of being a pantser/discoverer/gardener. Others will come up with more detail before writing. That is an aspect of a plotter/outliner/architect. Some people will write huge histories, and family histories, and what their favorite food is, and all sorts of things. I just want to think of a few things to add depth before giving them a problem. That way we feel they haven't only been created simply to fill the role of being a character for this specific situation.

How about hopes and fears? The hopes and fears could be connected to being an interior designer or to the mob, but I think it may work better for the purpose of depth to make them neither. An interior designer for the mob hopes that she will be able to have her own company and fears that she may be infertile. There are several things to notice here. One, I made her hope have to do with interior design. Two, I made her an early career age woman. Assumptions are very important to human thinking, they are necessary, but if we can be aware of them that gives us greater options.

I think this is an interesting character-setting that would be useful for a series, maybe a television series. An interior designer for the mob hopes that she will be able to have her own company and fears that she may be infertile. Now, add in various problems and have her solve them and you have a book or show. Also, notice that both her hope and fear are things that she may want to keep secret, they will probably create conflict in her life.

I know that there are many different ways to create fascinating characters with depth, but I think this process has been enjoyable. I may or may not eventually do something with this particular idea. I will be coming up with more ideas. You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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