I’ll break this article into parts over the next few days. Here is what I covered at Comic Con. Some of this will make its way into my writing book which I am editing now.
What is a story? Why do they exist?
20,000 years ago, or more, human beings sat around campfires and tried to figure out why things were the way they are. Why are there storms, wind, rain, earthquakes, gravity, death, famine, disease, old age, etc. They had no idea. They had no science. So they created mythologies in the form of stories. The best stories would become religions. Those ancient storytellers learned that certain tricks of telling a story entertained and while other methods bored the audience. And that is when storytelling began to be crafted.
Stories were created to explain the unexplainable, or as I like to say, make sense of the senselessness of our existence.
A good story makes some kind of sense. A good story tells us a truth of some kind. Or at least, makes us believe it’s a truth.
Stories are metaphors for life. Any story that doesn’t have meaning of some kind is a waste of our time.
Entertainment isn’t enough. We need the story to be memorable. And that comes from relevance. If a story touches on subjects or ideas that mean something to us on some level, we will take away ideas. If the story is really that good, we may even be enlightened in some way. We remember stories that reveal truths to us we can relate to. The stories we like are ones we choose to revisit again and again. That is because they speak to us personally and we relate to them. They validate our views of life, or they open our eyes to things we never considered.
What separates good stories from bad? A point.
Bad stories do none of those things. Bad stories are a mixture of events meant to entertain but are often either predictable or pointless. Bad stories are usually unbelievable, either because the characters do stupid things, are boring, unlikeable in some way, or have nothing to tell us we don’t already know.
Most of all, bad stories lack a point. It isn’t enough that someone wins or loses in the end. It matters that their success or failure reveals a truth of some kind. Good always over evil triumphs because? Crime doesn’t pay because? Drugs are bad because? Whatever the story was trying to say, if it was trying to say anything at all, it either didn’t convince us or it told us something really clichéd or dull.
We don’t just want to be entertained. We want to be moved. We want to feel something. We can’t get thrilled or excited or angry or amused by things we see coming a zillion miles away. We can’t be entertained by a story that makes no sense. Or is pointless.
Understanding people. Character is Action
One of the most important things you can ever learn if you want to be a writer is to understand people. That’s not as hard as it seems. Yes, people seem crazy or unpredictable at times. But they really aren’t that hard to fathom. Most people fail to listen and observe others. They are wrapped up in themselves and their own little world.
If you want to be a good writer, here is some good advice. Learn to shut up and listen to people. Stop focusing on yourself so much and learn to listen to people. Really listen.
People do not say things directly most of the time. They tell you things indirectly and you have to learn how to listen to what they are saying. This is how fortune tellers and mentalists seem to read people’s minds (or futures). They listen to them and figure out where their hearts and minds are. They can see their desires and work with that.
Your fundamental job as a writer is to create characters your readers can relate to and believe in. They can’t do this if the characters don’t ring true. So learn to watch and listen to people to get their rhythms. Learn to understand human motivations.
And remember that character is action.
What that means is, the choices someone makes defines who they are. If a terrorist bursts into a crowded room waving a gun, many people will fall to the floor and scream. Some will cower in fear. Some will look for an exit. Some will assess the situation and try to see if they can stop the terrorist. Some will beg for mercy. A few might attack. There are all kinds of possible reactions but what your character does in an extreme instance defines what kind of person they are. Are they a coward, a hero? A peace maker? You get to decide in the situations you create. But remember, your audience is watching what that character does and how they react. This tells the reader if they should like them or not. If the character does something the reader approves of, they will like them more. If they do something stupid, they will like them less. If you’re good, you will know how to massage these emotions to the effect you want to create. It’s possible to make a likable character that does stupid things. But at some point they will have to redeem themselves if you want the audience to care what happens to them.
Two driving motivations: Desire to have, fear of loss
Humans are driven by two opposing emotions, desire and fear.
We are born hungry, screaming for air, food, love. From birth to death we hunger for things. We are creatures of desire. It defines us. What kind of desires we have define us too. As do the things we fear.
When you create a story, one of the first things you need to figure out is what does your character want and why? Because that will drive them through the story. It will give impetus to the narrative.
People can relate to desire. They can relate to hunger of some kind. It is something every human has inside them.
Fear is also an emotion we all have somewhere inside us. We all fear different things. I am not talking about phobias. I am talking mainly of fear of loss. We fear losing what we have. Health, love, money, life, friends. These are powerful motives people can relate to.
Remember, you need to tell us stories full of truth of some kind. Or truths. Fear and desire are two very human motivations we can relate to. Once you understand this simple rule, it will be much easier for you to construct motives for your characters.