How to Write a Story
Hello once again, future 'Mark Twain's and 'J. K. Rowling's for a brand new installment of the hit tutorial How to Write a Story! My first tutorial was such a hit, and I have grown so much as an author myself, that I was inspired to write up a second tutorial that you all might appreciate. In this new and improved tutorial, we are going to go in depth into Characters and their development. As a note, a character's development generally deals with how a character reacts according to the plot line, so Plot is important in this tutorial.
In the first tutorial, I gave you a few tools to help you with character and plot. I told you about writing a summary paragraph of the overall plot of the story, a safety net really, to help you avoid writer's block and to help give you a road map towards your goal of the story's end. I also gave you a tip on sneaking in your character descriptions instead of bluntly and blandly writing out paragraph descriptions. You don't really need to remember these two topics, but they might help you if you have problems with your character and/or character development.
First batter up for this tutorial is Character, namely your Main Character. Your Main Character should be one of the elements that stays true from beginning to end of your story. There are numerous exceptions but I'm writing an internet 'tips and tricks' guide, not a complete book in the self-help section of your local Borders store. At any rate, your Main Character is an important person. They need to be likeable, relatable, interesting, or there at least needs to be a second main character that fits this description. For the most part, you need to avoid two terrible extremes: 'Mary Sue's/'Gary Lou's and 'Plain Jane's/'
Unfortunately one of the biggest marks of an immature writer (not an immature person, I'm not trying to be insulting) are characters that are either too fantastical or too bland. The first is the most annoying to me personally so we'll start with that.
The term 'Mary Sue' normally refers to a character in Fan-Fiction that is overly idealized and worshipped by the Author and typically is for a female character. For male characters, the name is sometimes changed to 'Marty Lou', 'Larry Stu', or something similar. I like 'Gary' personally, but regardless of the name, these characters are annoying. What makes them so annoying is that they are usually lacking noticeable flaws and that the Author constantly emphasizes how incredibly amazing, wonderful, and talented they are. A few typical traits of a 'Mary Sue' include:
Exotic hair and eye colors, pets, and/or items in their possession
Excels in every subject they attempt
Plays one or more instruments very well
Amazing singing voice
And they know everything
All the other characters fall in love with them
Or the other characters are jealous of them
Unusually strange or tragic origins or history
The list of annoying traits go on and on. Generally, the 'Mary Sue' character has a score of special skills and talents, fantastical physical traits and items, and an unusually heartbreaking past. A 'Mary Sue' is typically considered to be too super-human and have the answers to their problems handed to them too easily to be interesting or to cause the reader to be able to relate or sympathize with them.
Avoiding having one in your story is sometimes very difficult. 'Mary Sue's are very dangerous because the Authors that create them love them. Being able to find a 'Mary Sue' in your own story is a little like trying to diagnose yourself with schizophrenia. It can be near impossible. A 'Mary Sue' in your story is your favorite Character. You absolutely love them, that is why you allow them to be the best at everything, have no faults, and be the brain and brawn of your story. Sometimes an Author creates a story solely based on this character that they love, and it exists only for their character to have an opportunity to be wholly awesome.
'Mary Sue's are also dangerous because in loving this character so completely, the Author is often very defensive and angry when they receive a negative critique about their 'Mary Sue' character. Most of the annoyance factor comes from the Author over emphasizing these character's good traits out of love. If a Reader does not respond by loving this character as well (and very few will), the Author will have their feelings hurt and be less likely to take any useful message out of the critique.
At the other end of the spectrum are 'Plain Jane's and '
Steve's. These characters are the exact opposites of 'Mary Sue's and 'Gary Lou's. They have little to no traits. They have nothing that makes them even vaguely interesting. The most that they do is take up space. Just like there was way too much space given to the 'Mary Sue's, there is next to nothing that goes into the 'Plain Jane's.
To avoid having either of these types of characters, we are going to create a Character Summary. To create a Character Summary, you need to ask yourself these questions:
Where does my character come from?
Specifically I want you to think of the character's family, the culture your character has grown up in, and the cultures that your character has been introduced to. A person's family is a major factor in determining how they act later on in life. For example, you all should know about superman. He was born with superhuman powers, and raised in a good, loving family, thus he later used those powers he was born with for good causes. Suppose that he had been raised in a bad family? What if he had been abused as a child? What if he had been raised by evil, villainous people? How do you suppose that would have affected him?
A good way to gauge how your character would react is to picture yourself in their shoes. Let's say your parents are supportive. They are interested in the things you are doing and encourage you to accomplish your goals. It wouldn't be hard to assume that because of their influence you grow up to be a confident person who faces life head on to achieve difficult tasks. Now what would you do if your parents raised you differently? What if they never cared, no matter how hard you tried to engage them? Perhaps you would then grow up to be a person who constantly seeks the approval of others and never thinks very highly of the things they do.
This sort of process is a sort of Feel-as-you-go sort of thing. There are just too many possible scenarios for me to list how a person would react, and on top of that, those examples don't even get near as complicated as real life. A truer example would be, "What if you were only raised by your mother, who dated numerous people throughout your life, but growing up you usually looked up to your older sibling, who was a bad influence because they were dealing with the emotional trauma of having been old enough to remember hearing your father loudly cheating on your mother with the neighbor through the thin bedroom walls?"
The only way you can develop your skill in feeling out these sorts of questions is to learn about as many different personal stories as you can. Read a psychology book, or do some reading on the subject on Wikipedia. Sociology is a good subject as well; it deals with how different things affect groups as a whole, which then in turn would affect your character. Learn about as many different cultures as you can. Read. Read lots and lots of good books and try to think of just why the main character is doing what they are doing. You can try this exercise with your favorite TV show characters. Ask yourself as often as you can, "Why is this person doing/thinking/feeling this?"
What historical events has my character lived through?
This is another question that affects the 'Why.' The things that have happened to you will always affect you, and they will affect you for the rest of your life. If you were scratched by a cat as a young child, you likely disliked cats for a while after that. In turn, you become a dog person, rather than a cat person. What if you meet someone who is an avid cat person, and in response your first impression is to dislike them and never pursue a friendship with them? If you had never been scratched by that mangy cat when you were a toddler, you might have grown up to adore cats, met this fellow cat lover, and continued on to befriend them, marry them, and have 3 children, two of which have four legs and meow.
How would a person go on with their life if they had survived a war? How would they be affected if they were a soldier in that war, or if they were imprisoned because they refused to fight? What if they had been in a gang, or if they were young when a gang war broke out in their neighborhood? What if they had been older when that gang war broke out?
The events of a person's life will always affect them for the rest of their life. The memories of these events help shape how a person sees the world, just as how a person was raised does.
What are the driving principals that my character lives by?
What are your character's goals? Does your character have a strange tick? Is there something your character really likes? Human beings have likes and dislikes. If you like feeling powerful, then power is probably something that you hold to be important, and liking this power probably developed because you felt completely powerless when you were yelled at as a child by your alcoholic parent, and because you never want to ever feel that powerless again, you would likely do a fair bit of nasty, underhanded things to gain more of it.
How you were raised and what has happened to you not only affects how you see the world, it affects what you think is important, fun, and good and also what is trivial, unpleasant, and evil. This then affects your priorities, and a million other aspects of what makes you the awesomely unique person that you are and not someone else.
After you've answered those three questions, you should hopefully have an idea of your character's Psychology. You should know at least a little bit of the 'Why do this?' that makes your character tick. Having this separate person's psychology in your head, I want you to summarize the main points. Write down a paragraph or two for your character's personality. How they would react to good and evil, or do they even care? What does your character care about?
Is it example time after that long winded psychology lesson? Here is a good (and short!) example:
Kodi Bennett (nicknamed Kodak)
The eldest son of a single mother. He has an older sister and a younger brother. They are all half-siblings, the common parent being their mother. Their mother dabbled in illegal drugs and multiple boyfriends. Kodi, being the biggest of the three kids did a majority of the parenting, even to the point of taking care of their mother. After years of this, Kodi followed his mother's example and coped by 'escaping' the situation, only he used music instead. Kodi became distant with his siblings, and taught himself guitar. Now as an adult, he has limited contact with his family and he can play both the acoustic and electric guitar very well. Kodi is woman crazy, also thanks to his mother's influence, but he is immature from his lack of a childhood and a proper role model. He doesn't keep a relationship long, and due to his relationship with his family, he doesn't care as long as he has a guitar and ten fingers.
Kodi is not completely detached. He has minimal contact with his brother and sister only because he's grown to detest those he 'has to take care of.' Kodi has many friends, usually those who are in bands or have something to do with music. Kodi has a joking, carefree personality (he's free now, compared to when he was younger). His apartments are always a mess and he procrastinates with anything that doesn't have to do with his guitar or his other love, a big and busty woman. While Kodi would strongly agree with someone who upheld justice and fairness, he would not lift a finger to promote what was right himself, unless it was for himself, his guitar, or a hot woman.
Those two paragraphs should give you an idea on how Kodi ticks. Knowing what you know, you could probably guess that Kodi would deck somebody who was covering his guitar with paint, but point and laugh if a waiter dropped a tray of glasses. This summary will keep you from making a 'Plain Jane'/ '
Steve', but not a 'Mary Sue'/'Gary Lou' character. Here's how you protect yourself from that. You've written your smidgen of Character Personality, now come the traits. You've written how your character ticks, now you are going to write a few bullet points on what your character can do, and (chiefly) what they can't. Here are Kodi's:
1. He can play the guitar well, but he does not have a good (or even pleasant) singing voice.
2. It was up in the Personality Paragraphs. He is an immature, breast-blinded SLOB! He may play one mean guitar but he does not pick up chicks no matter how much he likes them.
3. He is often broke. He is not famous by any stretch of the imagination.
4. You know what, forget about what a slob he is. Most women that he's dated Hate him, but if they don't mind being hit on, they've never seen his apartment, and they never succumb to his frat-boy charms
well then he's a charming, guy
in a really gross, toilet humor sort of way.
5. The way Kodi is now, he's not going to have a steady relationship. He'll never be together enough to become famous on his own, nor would he enjoy it.
This is what keeps you from creating a 'Mary Sue.' List your character's faults. No one in the world is perfect, and people who pretend to be perfect are boring and annoying, but don't go overboard. Everyone has faults, but everyone has good qualities. Kodi's a slob, but he's a great musician. He can't stand needy people and he is a little cold to his family, but he's a funny guy. If you want to be cheered up, or go to a bar and hit on girls, or play this rocking song you just wrote to hear how it sounds, Kodi is a great friend to have. Kodi has awesome points, and he's got some downers. The point is a good character has a happy mix of good and bad, just like a real human being. It's what makes the world go 'round.
This is just a side note really, but one more tip to keep yourself from making a 'Mary Sue'. Do Not Ever In A Million Years For Any Reason Whatsoever let yourself create a character with 'natural' electric blue hair, a wolf tail and eagle wings, who fights crime throughout the galaxy with the help of a magical ring left to them by their father on his deathbed that gives them superpowers, the ability to jump through time and space, and summon demonic creatures that are evil and ugly as sin, yet follow your character (and only your character) around like adoring kittens. Don't even make a character with more than 2 of the ideas I just warned you about. Never. Or at least, if you do create a character like this (and it isn't a parody made to make fun of a 'Mary Sue' character), then don't ever let it see paper, real or digital. Everyone, even I, have a secret pet they keep close to their heart. Just keep your pet where it belongs, inside of you.
The final point of this tutorial is your plot. Remember when I said the events that have happened to your character in the past effect your character? Well so does the Plot! By sheer definition, the plot is a series of events that happen to your character! Your plot has the ability to change and affect how your character acts. Your character should never be the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. Now this change does not have to actually be a part of the plot, but some of the most interesting stories are those whose central idea revolves around the change and growth of the main character.
Now you should start seeing how important your character summary is. You should be able to get to know your character well enough over time that you don't need to refer to your summary at every little plot twist, but creating one will help you create a true human being, who reacts properly to the events of the story. It is like a triangle. If you pull on one of the corners and draw it out long, the angle becomes thin, and the other two angles, become obtuse. If you push one of the corners in, its angle become fatter, and the other two angles become more acute. If you pay equal attention to all three corners and push or pull on them all equally, you will always have a perfect and beautiful equilateral triangle.
If you can't tell, I'm an Author and a Math geek, but hopefully you can catch the gist. Create a human character and actively think about how they would react to the plot line events unfolding all around them by knowing how they have reacted to and coped with all the events that have happened to them in the past. When you create a good character (emphasis on good), you aren't making a pawn to do as you command. When you create a good character you are creating a human being who has been building their personality from the moment they were born from their mother's womb. When you create a good character, you are creating a living creature that existed before you wanted them in a story, and will continue to exist forever, even should they die, in the hearts and minds of those who have read about them.
If you truly love that character, you will make sure they are human. You will give them good traits with joy, and you will give them bad traits with understanding. You will love them despite their faults and so will anyone else who matters. It will be a honor and privilege to consider how they would react to the plot line you have set before them, even if you suddenly realize that they would not react the way you need them to react. If you truly love your character, you'll realize that you can't bend them mindlessly to your will and force them into an unnatural plot twist. You'll have to figure out some other way to get to your plot's destination.
When you love your character, and do right by them, you will always have a story with some good in it. If you fail to write a story that is an instant best seller, and even if you write a story that is actually painful to read, at least you tried to give your characters the freedom and understanding they deserve.
With the preaching over, you are probably wondering, "But what if my character isn't Human?" Major dilemma you have there. You have two options. Still create their character summary like I have described, but make sure the reader knows about your character's completely different culture and history. You just said your character wasn't human. They should have a culture like something I've never experienced before, or at least something I won't experience on earth. If your non-human culture is like one that is on earth, you might not have to let the reader know about their culture since it might be something the reader could still relate to even though they are human and your character is not.
In the same vein, remember when I said your character should be likeable? Well, if your character is not likeable, or if your character has a culture that the reader would never be able to understand and you do not want to even begin to explain it to them, you better have a human-like character that the reader can like and understand. You could use a second main character, or a secondary character or two. Another option would be to have the main character be the human-like one, your non-human character as the secondary main character, and the general gist of the plot line could be how the two characters come to understand each other over the events of the story. Your options are really endless once if you play around with ideas.
Just make sure you not only stay true to your non-human character, but to your human character as well. Do not favor one over the other, no matter how much you like them. Both should have minds of their own, and if they clash, let them. If they clash too much, then they are obviously not meant to be in the same story together
unless of course you create a third character that will keep them together or some other sort of plot twist that will force them to be with the other.
Now if your character not only has a different non-human culture, but they have completely unnatural way to see and process the events of their life like a mental disease or a completely different brain function, that you'll just have to feel out on your own. Only a truly mature Author can satisfyingly hold a character together that reacts like that. It is also mandatory that you have a human-like character to counter-balance this strange, strange creature you've created, or your readers won't like it. They also will not likely understand your character for a good long while, unless you spell out your creature's defect for them, and even when they do, your reader still might not like them. Inhuman characters just leave a bad taste in a normal reader's mouth, and usually a good bit of confusion in the readers head along with it.
Hopefully this more in depth tutorial on characters will help everyone just as much as the first tutorial did, but the best thing you can do as an author to learn how to write a story is to simply do it. Write and write and write again. As my sister says, "Practice makes Pretty." You are human and no one is ever perfect so I will not say Practice makes Perfect, but quirky, fun, unique, and satisfying would certainly fall under the category of Pretty when it comes to a good story. Keep on writing and you will acheive something better than Perfect. If you never stop writing, you will never stop being better than you were yesterday. That is how you write a story.