Saturday, 11 April 2015

Weekend Writing Workshop #4: Characters or Story? Which should Writers attempt first?

Stories start with inspiration. Maybe you visited somewhere, or you saw a new programme that reminded you of a factual event, and you decide to put a fictional spin on it. Then, there are other stories that beg to be told simply based on your experience of life

And of course, a writer is inspired by the other books he or she reads.

In my case, I am inspired by all of the above, and many more I haven't listed. I mean, one of the latest books I am reading, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, is based on one of the key moments in US history, and is proudly stating the fact that it is SK's first time travel novel.

I think time travel is a tricky concept to make work, so maybe I'll do that when I'm better at the writing craft.


If you write the Story first, that's fine, but unless it is a novella or mini-novel, you'll find yourself running out of things to happen to character 1 2 or 3.

Unless your book is really tight, and features just a handful of characters, you end up adding a new character to flesh out a plot line that would have eroded with say characters 1 and 2.

The story must have a hook, or a MacGuffin, which, in the case of my favourite film, the martial arts wuxia movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, really needed. For fifteen minutes, nothing much of note happens. The cinematography is a work of art, and it is like director Ang Lee is trying to seduce the viewer with his visuals, and indeed, the film is a visual feast.

Pretty pictures alone do not a good film make, and just like your story, it must have that MacGuffin - the thing that is hard to describe to anyone else, but if it's in your story, and you have a McG....then you have a hook that will keep your readers interested.

Even when you have this in place, you might run out of steam after say 30,000 words, so a full novel won't happen. Maybe this is one story in a short story collection - you might excel at that kind of writing.

A sharp, witting, engaging story is what I believe people want. Even if it is a horror, make it fun. It doesn't have to be terror on each page, it can be paced so it creeps up on people. You can add funny episodes inbetween. Why should you do this? Well, people want to be entertained. If it is a constant barrage of depressing vignettes, you may lose your reader, even if it is a perfectly good story.

Shape your story, and you will keep your readers attention. 


If the story is like a cake with a nice texture, your characters are like the flavour of your book. If you don't like the taste, it's unlikely you'll be rooting for them. Of course, some authors go out of their way to create unlikeable characters - but that doesn't mean that they are not interesting. How many times have you read a book, hoping that the Bad Character who wants to hurt the hero or heroine of the tale will meet a grisly end (The Lovely Bones, anyone?). So bad characters may taste ugly with a capital UG....but you kind of have to have them to make the overall dessert more enjoyable!

I've read stories that were perfectly fine in themselves, but had forgettable or pointless characters. If you read about Adam's predicament on one page, then Sarah's on another, before Becky, Drew and Penelope are dropped in on you, you may have forgotten who Adam was - and worringly for the author - why you are supposed to care about Adam in the first place. 

So, what's the answer?

Everyone can have their view, so I'll tell you what works for me. I sketch an outline of the story. Now these notes could run into several pages, so sketching an outline is not a quick exercise, nor is it for the faint of heart. Sitting down and writing is hard enough without having an outline, which includes:-

  • A start
  • A middle
  • An ending
  • A brief description of each character (not necessarily what they look like or what they wear - what is their FUNCTION in the story)
  • If writing a series, try and complete as much as you can in one book before just ending it. Readers dislike books that appear to be padded out to fill a trilogy, so don't do it if you don't have enough story in the first place
  • Not every book has to have a prologue or an epilogue - do this on your terms no-one else's
Once you have your outline, look for plausibility and logic. Could the story happen? Even in fantasy worlds, it has to sound / read as a believable plot. Logic - do the characters do stupid things? If your character hears a noise in the night, but just has to go and investigate it, perhaps this needs a rethink. Sometimes hiding out of sight is an option. You'd do it in real life (unless you are totally kick-ass) so why wouldn't your characters? Just because they are fictional and free from actual harm, doesn't mean you should treat them that way. Logic must play a part in your characters' actions.

The 2am Lightbulb Moment

You're asleep, and you know you should be asleep at this time, but you awake to find ideas flooding your brain like some kind of orgasmic aneursym. DON'T go back to sleep before you jot these things down! Truly, I had a lot of inspiration after hitting the pillow. And the ideas are often good. Maybe it happens because we are truly the daytime you have to fit writing in around the cat, the girlfriend, the parent, the guy selling something of no interest at the door.  Oh dear, looking at the above, I really do need to get out of the house more!

Until next time, happy reading and writing!

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