Tag Archives: story

Annoying Questions People Ask Writers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Writers are always complaining about things that people ask them, and this is one of the most cited questions.  There are tons of different answers, none of which are right for everyone, or even for someone all of the time.  There are just so many places to get ideas and inspiration from, and many, many methods of combining these things into something that could actually support a story.

But, because I think about this kind of stuff a lot, and becuase, like all good writers, I have more ideas than I could ever manage to use in my natural lifetime, I’ve come across an answer to this question that describes how I get ideas most of the time, and which corresponds fairly well with what many other writers have described as a common process for them.

Since I’m a writer, I’m going to tell you a little story, rather than writing a long boring essay:

Our story begins about 4 billion years ago, before there even were writers to come up with ideas in our solar system.  The Sun was here, but the planets were yet to be born.  A massive disc of material left over from the Sun’s formation, called the solar nebula, was as close to planets as the solar system had gotten.  Much like the cultural soup that every human being inhabits, this disc was full of tiny little grains of stuff, held together by some force; in the solar nebula’s case, this force was gravity.  Over time, these little dust grains began to collide with each other, and every now and then gravity would cause some to stick together, creating a larger piece with more gravity than the little pieces surrounding it.  As time passes, these larger chunks collide again, their mass building and building, clearing out the space around them, until they bccame around 10 kilometers in size.  These huge masses of dust and gas were called planetesimals.

The collisions continued, and these planetesimals increased in size at rates of a few centimeters per year.  Just imagine all the little interesting facts and scraps of information you encounter daily.  Over time, one or another begins to take on weight as you learn more things about it, and over time, it might become an opinion, or a desire.  And these opinions and desires feelings and thoughts and hunks of knowledge are just like our little planetesimals.  Over time, the planetismals crashed together, and snagged most of the remaining dust and bcame the planets.  And each planet is like a little idea, starting from a tiny grain of thought, and gradually accumulating a mass of information and images and words, until it becomes the basis for an incredible story.

And most writers have tons and tons of these ideas orbiting them, or still forming.  And because, unlike the sun, we have an infinite sea of information surronding us for our entire lives, there are always more ideas, more little thought planets forming around us.  This process is called “accretion”  and it’s where almost all ideas come from.  For example, the first grain of the idea behind this post came from an Astronomy class I took at a community college over the summer.  And then many many threads trying explain where writers got ideas began to collide, and were caught up in the gravity well of that astronomy course, until eventually there was enough mass to support and atmosphere, in which grew little tiny forms of life that finally evolved enough to smack me on the back of the head and say “Duh!  Here’s where we come from!”


Posted by on July 3, 2011 in Authors, Ideas, Writing


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How the Four Aspects of Character Define the Story: Part 1… and a Half

Last time I brought up the four main aspects of character in fiction.  Hopefully everyone who read that post now has a good understanding of what these aspects are and how they relate to each other.  In the next set of posts, I want to go into more detail on how these various aspects of character interact with the story.  I’m going to be illustrating these interactions with examples from published fiction, and maybe that will give you a better idea of what I’m saying.  I know I can be a bit opaque at times. 😉

The easiest aspect to address is “skills, abilities and attributes(SAAT)”.  We’ll stick to that for this post, since the discussion is going to be much more involved.  In fact, if the title suggested to you that this will take more than one post, I may be getting better with titles.

First, I’m going to tack on a fourth part of this category, the “T” in the above acronym.  It may seem like hair-splitting now, but when we eventually discuss Mary Sue/Marty Stu characters and cast balance, it’s going to come in handy.  Trust me.

T stands for… “talent”. ***pauses for the groans to pass***  Whatever you may think about talent in real life—whether you follow the 10,000-hour-genius school of thought, or the natural gifts philosophy—the fact is that it plays a large role in fiction, whether that’s your heroine’s staggering gift for pissing off her friends, or her incredibly advanced flute-playing.  Or whatever.

Next, for the rest of these posts, I’m going to use the word “trait” to refer generally to any part of any aspect of character.  “Personality trait”, “physical trait”, “motivational trait”—and I can’t really think of a reasonably graceful term for SAAT traits.  Feel free to suggest one in comments.  I’d appreciate it.  Also keep in mind here that there’s a very similar continuum as far as intellectual traits go, with intelligence standing in for natural talent, knowledge for skill,  and so on.

Now, back on-track:  Not only will this aspect affect how readers perceive and sympathize with your character, it has a lot to do with your plot, or it should.  Unless you’ve tacked on a bunch of extra awesomesauce traits to make your character cooler, the way they meet the obstacles in their path is going to rely almost entirely on what they can do.  (That is, for the external conflicts.  Internal conflicts are a whole other story.  In fact, you might say that every book has two stories, one following the plot, and the other following the characters.  But that’s a topic for another post.)  If your character is a demolitions expert, they’ll be seeing safe-cracking from an entirely different perspective than if they were a computer programmer/hacker/console cowboy.  We’ll be starting with a no-skill situation, and picking the next thread up later. 

No matter how many latent talents your character may have, they’re not going to get much done without a repertoire of skills.  They might be the strongest mage in the world, but if they know jack about casting spells, some poor conjurer panhandling in the park could out-magic them.  This situation is most often found with younger characters (but not always), and it comes equipped with a whole host of tropes and conventions to help writers get around it.

Trope 1: The Call et al: If you’ve ever read any epic fantasy, you’ll know what most of these tropes are.  They’re laid out in excruciating detail on TV Tropes, or in Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Face.  These all relate to how even though the MC is a completely worthless good-for-nothing, (s)he will still somehow manage to save the world.  We migh generalize and call this “Fate”.

Trope 2: School!  I know everybody’s familiar with this one.  Harry Potter, Name of the Wind, Earthsea, Velgarth,  a bajillion anime and manga.  This is where the talented, the not-so-talented, and the absolutely abysmal gather to learn their craft.  Older students tend to go to a high-class university or get more practical training.  I’m just happy Eragon opted to skip this trope.  Stories that follow this trope generally contain a great deal more slice-of-life action that Fate and Mentor stories.  While learning the skills needed to resolve the conflict is still important, it’s not usually the driving force behind the characters’ actions.  For Harry, going to Hogwarts has little to do with defeating Voldermort in the beginning, for example.

Trope 3: Master/apprentice:  Unfortunately, Eragon opted not to skip this trope.  Any fantasy writer is going to be only too familiar with this one, though it applies in many other genres as well.  Martial arts, competitive board games, you name it.  It may not be as common in genres that require the character to start off with a comprehensive skill set—such as mystery, thriller, or romance.  Same for school, actually.  A good recent example is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, which features and adult version of this trope—something that’s sadly uncommon.  Although younger protagonists are generally less self-directed than good ole John.  We can call this the Mentor story.  You can often find him hanging out with Fate, but almost never school.

Trope 4:  Natural Talent: except it’s usually not “natural” talent, because that requires nurturing and focus.  What we’re talking about here is “my character can do this because(s)he’s a) awesome, b) made of cardboard, c) the child of a lazy writer, d) the prophesied messiah/hero/destroyer, e) the MC, duh!, f) in need of these powers too fast to do things right but plot is king, g) all of the above.  This is not always lazy writing, and the other two tropes can be just as bad.  But I always see a sign in my head when reading about these characters: “Here there be Mary Sues!”  Again with the Eragon, shouting a word in a language he’s never learned to solve a plot problem, even though it’s established he has to learn almost every other word in this language by himself later in the story.  In The Wheel of Time, Mat is especially prone to this syndrome, thanks to his transparently named Old Blood, which lets him do things that would normally require him to be significantly older than he is.  This trope is friend with everybody, though I can’t say much for their taste in this case.  It’s very convenient for passing time and getting around tedious things like practice and hard work that many writers and readers like to avoid.  Movies can often trade NT in for a montage.

Trope 5: The Pre-Promote: I’m adapting this term from rpg/strategy games, where it’s common to have one or two very strong characters at the beginning of a game or in certain storyline situations so new players can be coddled for a while.  In fiction, these are often people who could probably do this job better than the protag but are constrained by the writer’s love for their phosphorescing authorial insert.  Our examples here come again courtesy of Robert Jordan.  Moiraine uses the One Power to do most of the heavy lifting at the beginning, except on a few occasions where Rand exhibits a bout of Natural TalentTM, usually used to make him seem less of a wet dishrag than he really is at that point.  Physical combat is handled by Lan or occasionally Thom Merrilin, while Lan trains Rand in the easy and unskilled art of spitting men on three feet of steel. 😉  The Pre-Promote is friends with everybody.  They may take the role of Mentors in Fate stories, or teachers in School Stories.  They may or may not have Natural TalentTM, but they are quickly surpassed by the MC, and often die in very gruesome manners.

There are many other tropes associated with no-skill stories, but those are the major ones.  We may or may not address others at some point in the future.

A no skill situation means we won’t be seeing the true obstacle until late in the story.  For inexplicable reasons, the antagonists will not do the smart and expedient thing by going straight for the throat.  They’ll stall and be distracted until the protagonist is up to the challenge of facing them.  That’s because characters in these circumstances need time to learn how to get things done.  Whether early obstacles are overcome with help from soon-to-be-killed Pre-Promotes, or through sheer luck, it’s usually not due to direct action on the part of the protagonist(s). 

A character with no skills can function well in a very limited number of story structures, and no overdose of tropes is going to make that number any larger.  So if you decide to use such a character, make sure you’re coloring within the lines.  Now, there’s never just one way to write.  This is only what my own experience has been.  So feel free to chime in with dissenting thoughts and opinions, and to call me things you couldn’t say in front of an eighty-year-old sailor, if you like.


Posted by on April 26, 2010 in How To, Ideas, Writing


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Atsiko’s Character Recipe for Stories

Last time I talked about how to move from a plot idea to a full story idea.  We learned about ideas, plots, and story questions.  But as I said in that post, there are many ways to begin a story.  One of the other most common ways writers begin stories is with a character.  So today, I’m going to give the basic steps of taking a character and creating a story around them.

Again, there are a few aspects to this–four, to be precise–and you can start from any one of them.

First, we have an image.  That is, a picture in the writer’s head of what the character looks like.  Images can be a lot of fun, but to turn a character image into a story probably requires the most work.  Common inspirations for character images include dreams, chance sightings in public, and sometimes a certain aesthetic, such as Steampunk, Victorian, or Vampiric.

Character images are very similar to character designs in games and anime/manga—that is, the visual aspect of the character.  While this is less important or visible in writing than character designs in visual media, it still needs to be known by the author, in order to allow for description and scene-setting. 

Now, why might this aspect be the hardest to start with?  Because stories are about characters—and more specifically, their personalities and goals.  While a character image might reflect that, it’s not the root of the issue.  But character images are only part of what you would find in a character profile such as many writers use to describe the character.

The second part of that profile is usually the character personality.  Their dominant traits, such as neurotic or fiery; their likes and dislikes, such as favorite food or favorite color; and of course the way they interact with other people: Are they bright and boisterous, dirty-minded and sly, or perhaps aloof and brooding?  This aspect is easier to build from, but still not the easiest.  While it is important as far as cast interaction and sympathy go, it doesn’t have the most influence on the plot.

Our third aspect of a character is made up of goals, dreams, and motivations.  This is where good stories arrive at their themes and basic plots.  Most plots either involve pursuing the characters dreams, or frustrating them.  Myself, I prefer a certain amount of frustration, since that’s where most tension and conflict in the story is derived.  It’s hard to write a good story with interesting characters when this aspect is lacking.  It’s also one of the primary issues that pansters seem to encounter in their first drafts. 

In fact, this aspect is where most stories are lacking in terms of character.  If you’ve ever heard the term “card-board character”, this is what it’s talking about.  You might have the character image down-pat, but if there’s nothing behind it for a reader to relate to, the reader can’t root for the character, because there’s nothing to about them that’s interesting. 

Personality plays a role as well, but if this aspect is not addressed, all the snark and wit in the world isn’t going to drive the story forward.  “Passive character” is most often the term for a hero who’s got both image and personality, but is an empty vessel as far as trying to achieve their own goals.  While you might be able to get away with a passive character in some types of stories, it’s still a risk that you shouldn’t take lightly.

And now we just have one more aspect of character to discuss: skills, abilities, and attributes.  Anyone who’s familiar with RPGs knows how important this is, although since there’re only NPCs in fiction, it doesn’t have quite the prominence they’re used to.  This category deals with skills such as self-defense, manipulation of the environment and others, and normal physical attributes such as speed or strength.

Now, you’ll notice I’ve divided this into three categories.  I’ve used ones derived from common RPG mechanics, since they fit so well.  Naturally, these categories are going to be a bit vaguer in fiction.  A “skill” is facility in a certain area, such as computer programming, writing*wink*, or swordsmanship (to keep fantasy from feeling left out).  It’s generally something learned through studying, training, or practice.  “Ability” refers more to a specific power, and is often inherent, such as being genetic.  An attribute is the most passive category.  It refers to a general facility, such as intelligence, physical stamina, or charisma.

I think we could benefit from some examples, here.  Since I love talking about magic so much, we’ll focus on that—but this can be applied to any area, whether it’s sports, music, or fighting. 

Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea has magic most accurately classified as a skill.  It is learned, in a school, and honed through practice and concentration.  Elemental magic systems usually map as abilities: elementalists are born being able to control their specific set of elements, and often do so with no training or instruction whatsoever.  If you’ve ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, or played a game such as Golden Sun, you’ll know what I mean. 

For “attributes”, I think it’s easiest to use examples from gaming systems.  In many RPGs, such as Elder Scrolls or Dragon Warrior, characters are assessed in several attributes, such as strength, speed, luck, and intelligence.  These are general characteristics used to calculate health, attack damage or mana points.  They are generally not learned, but increase automatically as a game progresses.  Now, in a book, this progression will not be made in terms of points or levels, but more vaguely, in terms of “becoming stronger”.  The character will be able to swing a sword harder, run faster and farther, or figure out more difficult puzzles.

A strong character, and one that a good story can be built around, requires that each of these aspects be known and balanced against story obstacles.  Some aspects are more amenable to fudging or simplicity, but ideally, they would all be fleshed out and used to determine the course of the story.

Some of these aspects answer questions that came up in the plot recipe.

The skill and personality aspects deal with how the students from the previous post would act up.  If they were good at manipulation and had outgoing personalities they might incite crime or riots among other students.  If they knew a lot about computers, they might cheat on tests by hacking the system.  If they were physically fit and prone to violence, they might abuse other students, terrorize teachers, or destroy school property.  They drive the plot.

The motivation aspect answers the story question.  If they wanted to get good jobs and rise in public society, they would have to work hard to outshine all the other students, and meet the demands placed on students by the government, such as high test scores and acquiring skills in profitable sectors of the economy.  If they didn’t have the drive, they might burn out or drop out, and resort to rebellious behavior.  And if they were intelligent, driven, and angry, they might…  Well, you’ll just have to wait until the book finds a publisher to get the answer for that one. 😉

Finally, how is the story idea affected by the character aspects?  Well, image doesn’t map very well onto any of the plot aspects.  The story idea, being the main thing that makes the story stand out, is going to affect all of the aspects of character, rather than being affected by any of them.  The setting is going to influence the fashions, and thus the character images; the level of tech and the environment, and thus skills and motivations; and also the socio-cultural climate, and thus the characters personalities, and their way of expressing themselves.  Keep in mind that we’re only talking about how to start a story.  As a writer, you’ll have to deal with all of these things eventually.

This post has gotten rather longer than I expected.  In the next post, we’ll discuss more about how these various aspects affect the story; and after that, common terms for different character types, and how these types impact the story the character is in.


Posted by on April 25, 2010 in atsiko, How To, Writing


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Atsiko’s Plot Recipe for Stories

There are three ingredients you should have when writing a story: An idea, a plot, and a story question. You can come up with these in any order, but from a structural perspective, they usually go like this: idea leads to story question leads to plot.

When I start working on a story, sometimes I have a plot, sometimes I have an idea, and sometimes I have a story question. And sometimes I have a combination thereof.

An idea is a “what-if?” I generally look at it as defining the setting of the story. A story-question is what most people think of as an “idea”. Every idea can allow many story questions. A plot is a “then this happens”. Every story question allows for many plots.

You can start off with any of these, but you need to figure out all three somewhere within the writing process. Let’s look at an example.

Here’s a hypothetical idea: “What if a nation in a world equivalent to near-future Earth is in danger of being economically marginalized by a super-national economic/political unit similar to the UE, and it attempts to restructure its school system to produce valuable skills and professionals to help it compete?”

Now you need your story question. Let’s say: “How would this affect the students within such a system?”

A basic plot might be: “Smart students in a prestigious school do ‘bad’ things.”

This is from a story I am actually working on. I picked it because it demonstrates the loose order in which you need to come up with each element. I came up with the plot first. Then I came up with the story question. I wanted to know how current educational practices in various countries might affect the way children developed and behaved as students. How would the pressure to achieve affect various types of people, and what would they do to lessen that pressure?

I came up with the what-if last. Since I was looking at current systems of education, I needed a setting that could incorporate them. Since I was looking at the extremes of these systems, I needed slightly more overt pressure on the country to adhere to these trends.

But it’s completely possible to come up with the what-if idea first. A lot o sci-fi works on this model. A lot of epic fantasy or romance starts with a plot. A lot of serial UF and mystery begins with a story question.

It’s also important to keep in mind that you don’t have to begin with something in the plot continuum.  What we’re looking at here is mostly the plot angle of attack.  You could also start with a character, or a scene, or a setting, or whatever.


Posted by on April 23, 2010 in atsiko, How To, Ideas, Writing


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