There is more to a story than what is on the page, no matter how many pages it takes to tell the story. Characters have reached the opening sentence through a series of events that precede the first word you write, and will go on well beyond the last word.
To fully understand the characters you are creating, you need to see them as individuals in their own right. You do this by creating empathy with your characters.
Empathetic interference is […] a form of complex of psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others.William Ickes, Empathetic Accuracy
Simply put: empathy is more than understanding a person’s situation, more than feeling what they are going through; empathy is experiencing the world as they do, becoming them, and living as they live with their thoughts and emotions and all the complexities that make them. This third lesson will be considering how to step well beyond yourself, combining inspiration and experimentation to let your characters truly live.
Select Your Threads
Creating a character, in a setting, from a moment in time will give you the starting point of a story. Ensuring every action has a consequence, as well as every action being the result of a consequence, will give your fiction depth, especially when layered with analogies. To bring it to life, you need to pick out the threads that, when wound together, will pull everything else in and tighten the story into something filled with tension.
Each possible thread in any story is an option; however, the ones you choose need to be the most effective. Think of a story you know well and imagine all the possible threads that exist within it.
Take Lord of the Rings, for example. There are thirty-six named characters, but thousands of others who remain unnamed. Any of those characters could have been woven together, but Tolkien decided to focus on Frodo and Gandalf. Ultimately, the story is the pitting of the figuratively and literally small and insignificant Frodo Baggins against the god-like entity Sauron, even though Sauron does not actually feature within the story, as such, beyond a few glimpses of an eye. That being said, Sauron’s influence is strongly felt, as if his thread is tied around the story, pulling it all tighter, whilst Frodo’s pierces through the middle and is twisted and pulled by Gandalf’s.
If Samwise or one of the other Hobbits had been the central character, pulled into a quest with their friend, the story would not have retained the tension it did, as they were of no consequence to Sauron. Similarly, if Gandalf had been the central character, the reader would have struggled to identify with a manipulative old man tempted by evil, and the tension would have been lost as Gandalf is a wizard. Instead, focusing on Frodo and his internal struggle within this epic world pulls the reader directly into the tension of the story.
The threads you select for your stories need to be the right ones, and you need to know how much pressure to put on them. Sherlock Holmes would not have been the success it was, and still is, if Arthur Conan Doyle had written from Sherlock’s perspective, as Sherlock would have been incredibly difficult to relate to. Seeing this wonderful detective through the eyes of Watson gave the reader access into a new world.
A good story takes up a lot more space than a few threads. It is the spread of the threads—the spaces between them—that give the story scope. The choice of threads provides the tension.
Try Thinking Differently
Stepping outside of what you usually write gives you freedom to make mistakes. Stories allow for an opportunity to experiment, to play. They are a sandbox within which you can make a mess, build something up, tear it down, and try again.
Knowing what you write can mean that thing that needs to happen is something—an experience, a moment in time, a choice—that you already know, as you have either experienced or witnessed it in the real world. But often it does not. There is no rulebook saying you have to write only from your real experience, so allow your mind to wonder.
Who you are should not prevent you writing from different viewpoints. Your gender as a writer does not dictate the gender of your characters. Your age, class, race, heritage, ability or disability, relationship status or history, education, career, life choices, or any other factor in your real life does not limit what you can write or the perspectives you can empathise with. However, to write from a different point-of-view to your own, you need to know what you are writing about. Research, talk to people, understand experiences, change your own perspective, and you will know what you write. Don’t just put yourself in their shoes; put yourself in their mind and heart. Be them, let them change you. You will come out a richer, more expanded person, and you will write a better character. You will be able to write what you know, as you will have learnt. Otherwise, you run the increased risk of writing insensitively, or relying on cheap tropes and overused clichés or stereotypes.
Every character that you write, no matter how different they are from you, should be someone you can understand. Even the most evil characters are still individuals, and you need to know who they are and why, not just that they are evil. Get into their head, think as they think, feel as they feel; become them enough to write as them.
Enjoy the Collisions
Once you have lined up your world, your characters, and chosen your threads, you need to create collisions. You need moments of consequence so great they will change the entire web of threads.
Every character has a motivation: they need or want something. The characters your narrative will focus on may or may not be antagonists, but their motivations should be opposed in some way. Gandalf wants the ring destroyed but needs someone else to do it. Frodo wants someone else to take the responsibility but needs to keep the Shire safe. Sherlock Holmes wants to solve crimes to help people but needs to be the cleverest person in the room. John Watson wants to document Sherlock’s brilliance but needs to have his own agency. These internal collisions create tension within the characters, altering their decisions and allowing for battles of mind and heart.
The motivations of characters also line up against each other, causing tension between them. Selecting the right characters to bring together can create a moment of collision so great it will define the story itself.
Find two characters that each have different motivations, and work out how their motivations could be at the expense of each other’s. Batman wants order; the Joker wants chaos. Freddy Krueger wants to kill children in their sleep; children want to sleep but not die. Edmond Dantès wants a life with Mercédès as his wife; so does Fernand Mondego.
To make this collision exist, you do not have to consider all the things that might happen, or could happen, or need to happen; you only have to imagine one thing: the collision itself. Work out that collision between the two key characters that needs to happen, and then work backwards through the sequences of consequential actions to figure out how those characters got into that situation. Once you’ve done that in your mind, you will understand them better. You will also be able to work out which part of their story you want to tell, and where you want to stop writing. You don’t need to open with a grand unravelling of world-building; neither do you need to tie every loose thread up into a neat conclusion. You can present a snapshot, an arc, or whatever part of it that will make a good story. What comes out will be greater than what you put in, and that is the wonder of stories.
The more primal the wants or needs, the greater the conflict created. All stories need one event, thing, collision, or moment of confluence, to exist. That is the moment the threads entwine and causes the tension in the story; that is the conflict.
Create two characters so far removed from yourself that you cannot think how they would, then work out how they would think. Study, learn, interview people, find out why these characters would make the decisions they will make. Find things that each one wants, and ensure they are at the expense of each other’s. Then entwine their threads.
Your assignment for this lesson is to write that story. Give yourself a limit of 3,000 words. Use everything you have learnt in this class, and write the story of those two characters around the point of collision.
Congratulations, you have completed my Creating Fiction class. I hope these lessons were useful, and you enjoyed testing out new ideas and ways of writing.
This is the value of writing short stories. They are much faster to write than novels or other long-form writing, and therefore allow you to occupy many different worlds and characters in a short space of time. After all, every character you create stays with you, a part of you, and so you can take that back to your other projects. Your werewolf story may just need a touch of noir, or your 1950s Young Adult tale might require a little post-apocalyptic influence. It doesn’t have to be spelled out on the page; it will be between the lines, in the space you gave yourself to grow.
Annie Murphy Paul, Your Brain on Fiction, The New York Times, 17 March 2012
William Ickes, Empathetic Accuracy
Hannah Boettcher, Finding your central thread, American Psychological Association, May 2015
Tara Thiagarajan, What Stops You From Thinking Differently?, Psychology Today, 10 January 2019
Sarathy V. Real world problem-solving. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:261. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261
Chrysikou, E. G., Motyka, K., Nigro, C., Yang, S.-I, & Thompson-Schill, S. L. (2016). Functional fixedness in creative thinking tasks depends on stimulus modality. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(4), 425–435. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000050