By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA
After many years of writing and teaching others to write, I've come to suspect that most aspiring writers are actually asking the wrong question when they begin to work on a story.
Plot is easy to articulate. The people I mentor often rattle off the details of a current project with ease: My story is about a guy who eats a poisoned sandwich and wakes up in outer space.
"Okay," I say. "So what's the problem?"
I've worked with writers long enough to know that the person wouldn't be telling me just about the plot if things were going well with the writing. Sometimes I hear, "Well, my brother (friend/writing group/rabbi) read it, and I don't know. It just didn't have much impact." Most often, the writer will say, "I've been trying to make it work. And I can't finish it. I hate it."
The relationships we have with our stories can be like bad romances. The concept had seemed so promising at first, but what a dud it turned out to be! The old platitude, "It's not you, it's me," might actually be true in this case. We may fail to commit over and over, sure that the issue is with the story. It's tempting to keep scrapping idea after idea, to believe that the right idea will solve the problem.
At this point, the writer of the sandwich story is hoping I'll say something like: "What you should do is have the main character discover that his mother is responsible for the bad sandwich. Blow up the escape pod. Make the two of them fight to the death." However, this would not solve their problem.
What I do instead is ask things like: "What would this guy have been doing on this particular day if the sandwich thing hadn't happened? What are the consequences of his not showing up for that thing? What ongoing problems does he have? Does he have financial woes? Has his wife left him? What's his fondest wish for the future? Has he always wanted to be an opera singer? A llama farmer? Why is he the worst possible person to end up in space? Or the best?" Etc.
Reactions to my questions are usually the same: A) The writer had never considered who the character was outside of someone poisoned by a sandwich; B) The writer understands that the character existed before we entered the story; C) The writer suspects that answering some of these questions about the character will make the story seem more real; D) The writer grasps that the character needs to want something, partly because real people want things and partly because desire gives the character reasons to make one decision over another; and, E) The writer is delighted to observe that the answers to the questions are already swirling around in their mind.
Maybe the guy who eats the sandwich is a lifelong grump because he had a terrible childhood in which his single father was rarely home and rarely fed him. Maybe he now works at a shoe store because he doesn't have to look people in the eye. Or, on the day he was abducted, he had planned to ask out that one cute security guard at the mall. It would have been his first date in two years.
Maybe the guy who eats the sandwich is a recently married environmental activist, and they just found out they're going to have a baby. Maybe he doesn't really want to be an activist anymore – he wants to be a standup comic but he hasn't told anyone, not even his wife. On the day of the abduction, he had been at an open mic at the Laff Factory, a place where most of the other comics are drug dealers.
In none of the above scenarios has the writer worried about what's going to happen in outer space because they begin to see that a particular character is the key to the plot and because their character is motivated by particular desires and problems.
Ultimately, a good character is like someone we could actually know. This means the person has flaws and strengths, problems and worries, pride about some of the wrong things and some of the right ones. And it won't matter if it's about a sandwich and outer space, about someone battling a terrible disease, or about a wombat detective.
A story is a romance for the reader, too. We have to give readers someone to fall for, to root for. This is not to say that our characters have to be likeable, but they do have to be three-dimensional and compelling.
At this point, the writer in question often says, "Thank you, thank you!" and bundles up a bunch of books and papers and races out of the room, bumping into the door jam as they go.
People who are drawn to writing tend to be insightful about other human beings. They are often empathetic souls who can write excellent stories if they focus on the right question at the start: Who is this story about?