Stories don’t just pop into our heads fully-formed and perfect. In fact, sometimes when we sit down to start a chapter, ideas don’t want to form at all. So let’s bust those brainstorming blocks with some in-depth tips on where to start: character arc, common ground in the cast, and theme development.
The 20 minute workshop…
For those of you that have some time, I presented a live 20 minute workshop on this subject. The resulting videos are below, and go more in-depth (with examples) on the topics covered in this article.
Below is Part One, and you can find Part Two here!
Character Arc vs Episode
When working with a long-term story, a big focus for the tale is how our characters develop. They are, after all, the vehicle for our messages and ideas. So how can we make a character grow on both a story basis, and a chapter basis?
Arcs for an entire story tackle a fundamental fatal flaw in a character. These are big, complex, difficult issues that require a major change in the character for them to overcome it. Furthermore, the stakes are high because if they fail to overcome this flaw, it will kill them. Whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally, it’s change or die when it comes to fatal flaws. (That’s why they’re…you know…fatal!)
However, nobody can just transform themselves in a day, and change on that kind of scale requires a lot of baby steps before the character’s going to make noticeable progress. That’s where episodes (or chapters) come in. Episodes allow us to tackle a small piece of that bigger issue, and explore the growth of the character in stages. This makes the evolution of the character feel more natural and earned.
Applying this to brainstorming: Figure out where your main character is on their arc. What key lesson do they need to learn in order to move to the next stage in their growth? This will give context to your start and end points in a chapter, and inform what other cast members you choose to use.
Find the Clones!
Once you’ve identified the lesson, you need to figure out what resources you have to bring that out. I’ve found the supporting cast has a lot to offer, particularly if we can uncover some clones in their midst.
A clone character is one that shares aspects of the main character’s lesson to learn. They are walking the same path in some way, but they may be ahead, behind, or side-by-side in terms of development. This allows you to “time travel” even while working in a linear narrative.
Time-traveling with Clones
Present Clones: Present clones are dealing with the same struggle at the same time as the main character. They allow the protagonist an outside view as an observer. How they react to the present clone may give them new solutions to their own problems.
Future Clones: Future clones show us what the protagonist could become if they continue down a certain path. This can be a rise or fall. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi shows us a positive example of what Luke could become. Darth Vader shows us a negative one. With these two future clones, Luke can gain insight on the kinds of consequences his actions in the present might have.
Past Clones: Past clones are just beginning to face the problems that our protagonist is mired in. This allows the protagonist a new way to relate to their past self, and makes characters that might have been previously unsympathetic a way to connect with the protagonist.
Common Ground Exercise
Sometimes finding a clone element is easier said than done. If you’re having trouble, try the Common Ground Exercise.
Common ground is NOT finding topics on which your characters agree. Rather, it is finding topics on which two characters have intense emotions. In some cases, they might be on the same page, but in others they could be opposed. What’s important is that both cast members feel passionate about the issue.
Consider the character’s back-story, personality, philosophies, loves & loathes, goals, and motivations. Search for common ground. Here are some examples:
(1) An orphan and a family man. Both will probably have strong opinions on the roles of parents and the importance of family.
(2) An honest man and a con man. Both will have strong opinions on what moral behavior is, the best way to live life, and the importance of money.
(3) A person motivated by revenge, and a person motivated by the need for redemption. Both will have strong opinions on forgiving.
Applying this to brainstorming: Figure out what cast members have common ground with your main character. Identify which aspects would be useful in bringing out the lesson you’re exploring.
Build your theme
A theme is a complete idea that encapsulates the lesson and the clone elements. It is a sentence, not a word. When I first started working with theme, I made the mistake of saying “This is about fear” or “This is about harmony,” but neither of those statements actually SAY anything. What about fear or harmony was I hoping to explore? Having a complete sentence focuses your message and makes your story ABOUT something, rather than vaguely RELATED to something.
Sometimes it can be helpful to take a side when developing a theme. Rather than a fact-based theme, a theme with a value judgement provides a lot of clarity and focus to your idea. Instead of “There are many consequences to dishonesty” compare that to “dishonest acts always yield bad outcomes,” or “White lies preserve friendships.” Both about the consequences of dishonesty…but with very different messages!
Applying this to brainstorming: Look at the issue you want to explore and the cast clones in your line-up. Create a single sentence that specifies the lesson and relates to all the cast members you’ve chosen for your chapter.
Still stuck? I’ve made a 1-page PDF worksheet that summarizes all we’ve covered today! You can download it here!
Robin Dempsey is addicted to storytelling, despite all logical reasoning against this irrationally glorious pursuit. By day she works as a Mechanical Engineer, and in every spare moment outside of that she is making comics. Including in her sleep, on occasion. Addicted to world-building, character crafting, and language making, you can find the results of her sprawling storytelling pursuits at LeyLinesComic.com! Or drop a line on Twitter at RobinofLeyLines.