A few days ago I posted my notes from the first session of Brandon Sanderson’s BYU class on writing science fiction and fantasy at BYU. Today: notes from the second class. Link to class on YouTube
Class #2: Cook vs Chef
Your job as a writer is to be a chef who comes up with something new, not a cook who just follows a recipe. The chef looks at the ingredients and thinks about how to combine them in a new and interesting way — which may or may not work out. This class will talk about a lot of formulas, and there’s a danger of treating them as checklists. Instead, focus on why the formulas work, what you can learn from them.
The Hero’s Journey is a great tool. This is the idea from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which describes storytelling and common elements like the wise mentor who dies at some point in the story. It tells how the elements have been combined in the past. The chef looks at why these elements work. For example, the mentor dies to give the hero a chance to see that he can stand on his own.
Sanderson said that while planning a book, he thinks about the principles he talks about in this course, but while actually writing he isn’t consciously thinking about them. When he gets stuck or runs into trouble, he’ll go back and consider these ideas again.
Parts of a story
A story has 3 main parts: plot, setting, and character. The conflict – a character at odds with some other element or character – draws them all together. How you tell the story – viewpoint, tense, tone, paragraphing, chapters – is your window into this structure, your personal voice. In this class, there will be about 2 sessions on each element (the 3 parts and “the box”).
Starting with a hook
Character is what keeps the reader interested. Rather than starting with a “bang,” start with a hook that grabs the audience’s attention and promises what the story will deliver. The hook should introduce the idea of your story in a concise, interesting way that encapsulates the kinds of emotions and tone you’ll be giving the reader. Part of the hook is the interesting and engaging character, maybe someone who wants something really badly.
What makes a character interesting?
There are lots of things that can make a character interesting. Maybe they can do cool things; maybe they can’t but they seem real and remind you of yourself. They may have conflicted morals; be out of their depth; be haunted by a powerful past; or be flawed. Their relationships with other people and the way they’re affected by the world around them can make them interesting. They may contrast against stereotypes, be funny, or be sympathetic (or not sympathetic). Consider why these things are compelling or interesting to you, and use that to help make your characters sympathetic and readable.
Three major forces drive whether a character is interesting to us. You can think of your character as falling along a spectrum in each of these dimensions.
The competence scale goes from everyman to superman. A hyper-competent character like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, where the reader just knows they can do anything, can be interesting because they do interesting things. Often this is balanced by an everyman, like Samwise from The Hobbit – he’s hyper-competent in loyalty and being a good friend, but mainly he’s an everyman. The main character can start on the everyman end of the scale and be dropped into an environment where they have to become hyper-competent (fish out of water type stories). We tend to see ourselves more as the everyman and wish we were more like the superman, so the everyman character is sympathetic. Everyone should have something they’re good at, even if it doesn’t relate to the main plot.
The likability scale measures how nice the character is, how much they remind us of ourselves, are they a good person, do they have friends. An easy way to make someone likable is to have another character talk about why they like them (but don’t overdo this; it can become sappy). In Hollywood, there’s a cliche that you have the character pet a dog or kick a dog to signal whether the audience should like them or not. You can increase likability by increasing the other scales, or by having an antagonist attack them.
Proactivity reflects how the person moves the story along. We like people who move the story, and get frustrated with people who refuse to move it along. This can lead to the villain problem – in a lot of stories with dynamic villains, the villain is the main source of proactivity in the story. Your challenge as a writer is to make sure the main character is also proactive. One way is to have the character arc be that they learn to step up and take control of their own life – but then how do you make the character sympathetic enough at the start of the story? You can force their hand early, as in The Hobbit where Bilbo is invaded by dwarves in the first chapter. Another way is to have a false plot that carries them through the beginning – they actually want something, and they’re working towards that while the real plot is sneaking up on them. Give an indication that even if they think their life is perfect, there’s something missing, like when Luke looks out at the two suns in the original Star Wars. You can show the character’s desires even if they can’t act yet. Give them small things to be proactive about even if they’re stuck in a rut.
These sliders move independently of each other. You can have a character who’s competent and proactive but not likable at all, like Sherlock. Villains tend to be this way and stay there, but heroes may move along the scale, like Gru in Despicable Me. If they can’t be proactive, you want to show them being competent in some sphere. We forgive people for being incompetent if they’re trying – if they’re proactive, like Wiley Coyote.
Flaws and handicaps
A handicap is something the character is stuck with and won’t get rid of, but learns to deal with. It’s not just physical limitations like being blind; it can be something like having a family you don’t want to endanger, or having been brought up by Muggles and not knowing things you should already know, or having OCD like Monk.
A flaw can be overcome. It’s something that might be the character’s own fault. Examples are arrogance or shyness. It causes the character trouble in the story, and they may learn from it and overcome it. Flaws make the character sympathetic because it makes them more like us.
Getting to know your character
Dossier method – questions you ask about your own character. You need to develop this for yourself, based on what’s meaningful to you. There are lots of examples from other writers out there. Answering these questions is a structured brainstorm to develop your characters. You can also brainstorm with friends to get yourself thinking.
Character monologue – if you’re a discovery writer, you can try writing a directed monologue like have the character write about their great passion in life.
What you’re trying to figure out is this: Before the story begins and the plot grabs them and carries them along, who is the character? What have they done with their life, what do they care about, what do they want? Stories that seem flat are usually because the character was built to suit the plot and doesn’t seem to have another life.
Figuring out the characters is how you figure out what the conflict is going to be, and what needs to happen in the plot. For example – if the character doesn’t fit the role they’ve been put in, like the wise mentor is actually the villain, or the loyal sidekick has to take over as the chosen one, this can drive the plot. Another example – what’s the character’s deep, dark secret? Hiding this or having it come out can drive the character arc that drives the plot. What goes wrong in their life, and why can’t they have what they want? Good characters change in some way over the course of the story, with a few exceptions like Miss Marple.
Character motivation is critically important and it’s the subject of another lecture.