As much as it’s good to be free and loose when you do something creative, it’s equally as important to carve out a schedule and follow a specific creative process. A bit ago, I wrote a post about creativity that outlined how John Cleese understands creativity to work. I highly subscribe to his methods.
I’ve even adopted techniques from other artists and creative outlets like music and animation and film. I discovered that the creative arts all basically work the same way. Story is story. The process to create any piece of art uses basically the same way of thinking. It’s still an ongoing process, but as of today the following 9 Steps are basically how I work when I write:
I would encourage writers to do this step first. Character is King. There is no such thing as a plot-driven story. Story is the result of believable characters interacting with each other and making genuine decisions about conflicts based on who they are.
There is a great writing exercise to help develop characters. Create a list describing as many aspects and bits of history for a character that you can possibly think of. It’s important to not go hog-wild. Keep it believable, even if it’s in a fantastical world. It’s highly unlikely you’ll come up with a genius twelve-year-old boy who likes snowboarding, flies into space in his free time, eats gummy worms, rides dragons in ancient China, and is one of twelve children — all different cross-breed species from the future.
Some of the questions may be: What are their flaws? What are their strengths? Do they realize either? Why or why not? What was their childhood like? What do they think they want in life? What do they actually need that they’re not aware of? Any number of questions to really get to know this character as best as they can. Include daily life stuff too like their least favorite foods, but create a reason why that is. And focus on deep level stuff. Remember that your character should come off as real. Are they afraid of snakes? Why, what happened? Did they have an abusive father who dropped them in a pit of snakes just for a laugh?
Next, repeat the process. Now that you have a character you really like, create another in that same world. Treat it like a potential alternate protagonist, but don’t even worry about it being related. Once you have these two characters, stir things up. Put their names in a hat and draw one out at random. That first “hero” you made? Yeah, now he’s your antagonist. Your story is only as good as the characters in it. And your hero is only as good as the villain. Develop the antagonist with as much love and care as you would your hero.
Now, come up with the first time these two characters meet. What is that situation? How does it happen? Why does it happen? Do they like each other? Maybe they’re best friends at the start. Maybe they just bump into each other on the street. Then, create the last time they meet. What is their last encounter? Project a potential moment when the two of them will have the final show-down. Of course, it doesn’t have to be some epic battle between good and evil. It might be that they were star-crossed lovers, and the last time they meet is a painful good-bye. Maybe they are mortal enemies in a huge final battle. Maybe they’ve become best friends and one of them is reading a story to the other on their death-bed. Maybe they’re anthropomorphic lollipops.
Finally, of course, come up with the moment in the middle where they’re most at odds with each other. Write down a bullet point list of what happens. Include key moments of dialogue. Often times, I’ll even draw the scene out in a single frame vignette (like a Rockwell painting) if I see it clearly enough. Soon, secondary and tertiary characters will pop up and before you know it, they will have created a world and a story will come out of it.
By putting your characters through their paces, you’ll start to get a sense of who they are, how they might react in certain situations. It will become clear what they would and wouldn’t ever do. You’ll start eliminating and molding who they are based on these initial tests. Or perhaps you’ll change them entirely because they aren’t working. But, when successful, the characters will be believable and richer than if you had started with the plot. No one cares about plot. They care about how characters react to problems. Story comes out of that.