Storytelling and characters

After rediscovering my passion for storytelling, I went on a binging spree.

I read everything that I could lay my hands on that had anything to do with writing or constructing stories. Inevitably, I came across On Writing by Stephen King – half biography, half indispensable writing manual.

(If you’re interested in scores and scores of works I read, leave a comment and I’ll see if I can’t post a list soon).

As helpful as the work was, though, there was one thing in it that I just couldn’t get myself to agree with: his contention that characters, once developed, have a mind of their own and, if left to their own devices, will tell you their story.

I was of the opinion that it was the plots that needed to be crafted, and that the characters were merely collections of traits and nuances that were to be shoehorned nicely into the overall story line.

So, I spent hours plotting and “constructing” my stories, and then forcing characters into them.

But the characters started to take upon lives of their own. Soon I found that I was trying to force them into scenarios that they just wouldn’t realistically get into, trying to make them say things that they just never would.

I found that the characters had their own story to tell me, but I wasn’t listening, too busy fighting them to get them to tell me what I wanted to hear.

In the first draft of Book of Dark (which I actually started off writing as a movie before it grew so huge that the 100 minute average became unfeasible), the characters spent the first half of Act I just meandering about.

Keane was getting lunch and wondering what he’d have for breakfast for two pages. Zara was shopping in the markets of Moehndahr. Why? No reason. No reason at all!

There was no conflict, no character revelation, no fun. And all because I was forcing them to make choices that were not true to their characters. So they repaid me by basically doing nothing at all!

Fine Steve! We’ll try it your way

I took a few months off the project and went on to work on other ideas that were developing at the time.

When I revisited Book of Dark, I decided to see how things would shape up if I did let the characters go their own way. I mean, having lunch and shopping wasn’t exactly thrilling plot, so what did I have to lose?

Needless to say, the characters surprised me with just how deep and big a story they had to tell me! So much so that, before I knew it, I’d written 75 pages of treatment! My treatment pages tend to translate into screenplay pages with a factor of 7 or so, and, sure enough, I actually ended up with 550 pages of screenplay!

And the words just flowed.

It took me a while to develop the characters, their personalities, their flaws, their wants and desires, their raison d’etre, and once I did, they wanted to tell me their story. I just wasn’t listening before.

Comparing approaches

Moral of the story: once your characters have a voice of their own, your job becomes to follow them around on their adventures, diligently jotting down what they think and do.

And try to keep up!

Now, I’m not saying that there cannot be a plot, but, in my experience, when plot comes from character, it’s far more organic, and far easier to follow. In fact, McKee implies that the two aren’t actually separate, that plot and character are actually integral to one another (see Story by McKee).

Since, in most commercially crafted stories, plot is driven by an antagonist who has a strong plan and does things to force the protagonist to react, having a strong baddie has become the norm (Star Wars and the Emperor-Vader duo, Die Hard and Hans Gruber, etc).

(Which is not to say that internally driven plots are not commercial – see American Psycho and Tender Mercies for instance – it’s just that they’re harder to follow in an audio visual sense and, therefore, not my cup of tea).

So what am I trying to say?

It comes down to this. If you have a story in mind, with some awesome scenes and dialogue, chances are that you already have a character that will lead the plot. Possibly, you already have an opening scene that fits your story and your main character just right. And you might even have the specifics of how your character(s) will set off the inciting incident that will lead to the chain of events which will comprise your story.

Once the story is underway, though, just remember to give that character enough breathing space to come up with his or her own ideas and last minute twists.

How much better than your original plot this ends up being may just surprise you.

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