In looking over previous posts, I wonder if I’ve put too much emphasis on the elements of a scene and slighted the importance of character. Even though I don’t write screenplays, I love the late Blake Snyder’s guide to screenwriting, “Save the Cat!” for his insistence that a movie (for “movie,” substitute “any fiction”) has to be about someone. As he credited his father with saying, “Tell me a story about a guy who. . .” Of course, it doesn’t have to a literal guy. It can be a woman, a child, or as we fantasy and science fiction writers know, a sentient robot – any character that you and your readers can identify with.
I also sympathize with Snyder for admitting that he usually got an idea first and then had to come up with a lead character to carry that theme. So where does a writer – you, for instance – come up with a character to match those story elements you drew from your ideas folder? For novels, I use a seven-phase, multipage character worksheet I got in a creative writing class at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, although I don’t know its ultimate source. It starts with the character’s ethnic background and ends with a description of what the character will become over the course of the book.
I don’t usually do quite as much for short stories. But for any fictional characters, I add my secret ingredient – a long, lonely, boring drive with nothing to do except converse with them. The last conversation occurred during a trip to a destination several counties away. Somewhere I’ve been so many times I could drive it in my sleep. But your conversation doesn’t have to happen during a drive. You could be gardening. Or doing housework. Or just daydreaming and goofing off. Whatever it is, seriously, schedule some time alone with your characters, a date, if you want to think of it that way. A few hours isn’t too much to ask them to spend with you before a word hits the page. Only don’t tell your friends you’re dating a sentient robot.
(Although Snyder died in 2009, his website is still out there along with lots of dishing, including a site that says the real way to write a screenplay is to start with, gasp, the character. Whatever – just tell me a story about a guy who. . . .)