Perhaps like a Hollywood studio who has a great actor needing a great script, for my next novel, I already had an interesting character needing a ‘home’:
Bree, from A Crown of Blood and Honour.
I didn’t really know her that well in the first series – except that I didn’t like her very much but, as the story progressed, I began to have some grudging respect for her. She was 12 years old when I banished her to the north of Scotland to spend time with her aunt, the dowager Queen Margaret. Bree’s fascinating and, true to her nature, she’s been bugging me since I finished the first series. She’s now a young woman but for the good part of three years she’s been calling out to me: oi, hey you! You, author. C’m here. I haven’t finished with you yet.
I also had an amazing story background to set a new novel. 1066 – the Battle of Hastings and all the drama involved. In preparation for The Crown of Blood and Honour, I’d done quite a bit of research on the characters who feature in this world-changing event. The fights and dramas would put any reality telly series to shame. It was all so fascinating and I knew back then that I would love a chance one day to dig into that bit of history.
But even having a clearly defined beginning, middle, climax and ending of the real history wasn’t going to be enough for a brand new novel. I needed to find my character’s object of desire – the thing that she wants the most in her life at this time. And, being the good writer that I am, I needed to completely stuff up any chance for her of getting to that goal. That’s my story.
On my canvas, the historical facts of the lead up to the Battle of Hastings, the battle itself and its aftermath, are my background. The details of the picture are made by my fictional characters and their adventures. I don’t think it matters when or where you set a story: 1066, 1840, 2085; Russia, New Zealand, Norway, America. What matters to the reader is the character: what they want, what they are prepared to do to get that which they want, how they behave along the way. We have a Māori whakataukī (proverb) which asks this question: He aha te mea nui i te ao? What is the greatest thing in the world.
The answer: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. (It is people, people, people).
It is the same for any story: it is the people who make us care enough to keep reading.
So, to my advice about how to find a new story: it all boils down to the questions you ask.
Coming up with a ‘good story’ means asking questions that will put a toddler to shame. To my students, I’m sure I make it sound so simple. ‘All you need to do,’ I start, standing confidently at the front of the class, ‘is to ask a question.’ In disbelief, they stare. ‘And then ask another. And another.’ They are unconvinced, so I go to the white board and write this:
Start with “What if…?”
• What if all the adults disappeared? (Gone)
• What if there was a school for wizards and witches right in the middle of England? (Harry Potter series)
• What if Shakespeare kept writing the story of Macbeth? (Crown of Blood and Honour series)
• What if ghosts thought WE were haunting them? (Boo Hoo – a play by me)
• What if the principal burst through this door right now holding the bloody hand of a corpse? (for some reason this one appeals to them…)
Sometimes, as a warm up, I will get them to ask one ‘What if?’ question and then write all the possible answers around the question. As fast as they can. Without censorship. Silly is ok. After five minutes, I make them swap their paper with someone and read that person’s notes, selecting ONE answer before handing the paper back. Now the students have the bare outline of a new story. We usually end up having some really funny stories, vignettes which would make Spike Milligan and Roald Dahl proud.
But the answer(s) to that question will only get you so far. It might get you a very basic sketch: the mountains in the distance, where the sky comes in, if there is a river or a forest or a house in the foreground. Probably only in black and white, without depth or shade or any interesting detail.
Next question: Who’s involved? Which character do you think might best work to figure in uncovering the answer to your ‘what if’ question? Whoever you choose will bring a certain flavour to the story. I wouldn’t say one type of character is better than another but you may need to take some time to ‘audition’ the characters until you find the right fit. You’ll know. There will be an ‘a ha’ moment for you.
Then, ask ‘What is it that my character wants for themselves? What is their object of desire? The thing that drives them/motivates them to act?’ I use the word desire because I think that captures the deep level of longing for a person. Something which would cause them to keep going regardless of the obstacles; a desire which affects every aspect of the way they see their world and go about their everyday lives. I see this ‘object of desire’ as being like an iceberg: you can see (and admire) the tip shining beautifully in the sun but it’s not until you dive down into that freezing and dangerous sea that you appreciate the enormity of the iceberg – there’s so much more than is seen on the surface; that pretty tip only happens because of the bulk under the water.
Which brings me to the next question ask: why do they want this thing?
To discover this depth, you need to keep asking why?, so?, and so what?
I might say to my students:
This morning, I really needed to find my deep red lipstick.
Why? Because it’s the colour that looks best on me.
So? I wanted to look my best at school for the parent teacher interviews.
Why? Because I know that people judge you on first appearance.s
So what? I wanted them to get a good impression of me looking fine in my great lippy.
Why? So they would like me.
Why? Because if they didn’t, they might hate me.
So what? I don’t want people to dislike me.
Why? Because they might hurt me.
Why? Because people often mistreat things they don’t like.
So? That makes me afraid.
Why? I want to be safe.
I assure you that I am not afraid of parent teacher meetings but I use this made up why/so/so what? to show my students that, at the heart of it all, people want to be safe.
In summary, ask: what is making (or will make) the character feel unsafe? And, why?
How do you want the story to end?
For me, I need to know what MY ultimate goal is; what I would desire as a reader having invested in these characters and in this world. What is it you want your character (and by association your reader) to learn, know, understand about the world by the end of the story? What ‘life lesson’ would they want to pass on to those they love?
It might be: ‘family matters above all’ or ‘people say what is the easiest thing to say and sometimes it’s the truth’ or ‘never give up on yourself and those you care for.’
Almost like hearing the narrator come in at the end and say: and the moral of the story is….’
Once you’ve got an idea of the end point, ask what happened to get your character to that understanding.
For me, this is the part which takes me the longest. I suppose it’s like getting to know a new person: you need to find out about how they are now, find out about what they’ve done before you met them – where they’ve travelled, their favourite foods, books, films. Who their friends are. What highs and lows they’ve been through. All this information gathering takes time. And, at the same time, you are getting to know your new friend in the present: watching how they behave in the good times and the tough times; when and how they lose their temper; how they get on with different people.
This getting to know your new acquaintance takes an investment of time; it is the same with your character. Some writers don’t even start until they have ALL the information about their characters; some just start and see what happens as they go on. Me, I do a bit of both. And I do it with a great big pad of paper, drawing timelines and tension arcs.
In a nutshell:
• What if?
• What do they want?
• How will it end?
• What will they learn?
• How will they get there?
My final question for you: what are you waiting for? Get creating.