Generators are great. Stuck for a character? All you have to do is turn a card or click a button and boom! There’s one complete with useful traits, their fate, flaws, weaknesses, and maybe even a little backstory. You might even get a premise with one of those things. With a couple more characters and a setting, you’ve got a great start! But then what?
I don’t know about you, but sometimes the most difficult part of writing a story is leaving off the brainstorming and actually coming up with event after event to get the characters through all the arcs and conflicts planned for them. Without strong scenes with solid cause-and-effect relationships through the plot, the thing feels more like a checklist than a living story.
Tackling this challenge is where planners and “pantsers” split, but only when it comes to that first draft. I personally believe the second draft is the best place to nail down this plot progression, if only because I can’t for the life of me manage it the first time around! Some great ideas do pop up as unexpected landmarks during the rough draft stage, so getting the words down helps show areas of potential as well as barren spots.
Starting with a Premise
Working with a generated premise (or an original one, since the problem is the same) just sets a goal. This can be a long distance goal, like “Frodo travels to Mordor to destroy the One Ring”, or it could be short term goal to the tune of “Character A and Character B have a 4-hour layover in Dallas; what do they do?” Short or long, there need to be conflicts involved or this isn’t very interesting.
After scribbling something out (often ramblings with not much potential) there’s at least enough there to know how long the story should be and what kind of tone/genre will fit. Beyond that, the revisions can be intense. When considering more effective scenes, turn the premise into a problem and break that down into chunks. Three or four usually do it for a big story, then each can be broken down again.
Coming up with stepping stones for the characters doesn’t create engaging scenes right away, but it’s much easier to come up with an interesting scenario when you know what needs to happen. It’s more fun, too, when you know what you create to fit that step will still be feeding into the larger plot.
Character generators are a hot ticket, especially good ones that focus on the inner, motivational traits the way Story Forge Cards do. There’s so much potential right there in front of you. It feels like the story’s writing itself! Thing is, it isn’t.
After writing around a bit to get a feel for who this new fiction person is, two things usually happen. First, you love them (or love to hate them). If you don’t love them, you ditch them and move on. The second thing that happens is you discover their comfort zones. That means it’s time to hurt them. Sure it’s no fun to do that, and you may poke at them with slightly uncomfortable things at first, like having them run out of toilet paper in their stall, or have them admit to having been unpopular in high school. Those aren’t really getting to the meat of things, and they’re certainly not plot-forming.
Whether the main conflict you’ve chosen is inside their head or outside and threatening their survival, their character is a clue how to test them. Each minor (and micro) conflict should test a trait of your generated character. That list of awesome things your character can do? Make them do it for the camera, and have them fail a few times. Or, force them to work closely with someone who holds opposite views. My personal favorite approach, even though it’s difficult for me to come up with a compelling enough reason, is to put them in a place where their views are thoroughly wrong. Even with the best intentions, people are often wrong. How they react is a huge demonstration of character, and the messy way they process it is raw and revealing.
People don’t change without serious motivation. Writing high stakes is such a tricky thing to manage without being cliche. For example, a character being afraid to die is a good start, but it needs to be clear what part of death makes the character desperate. Is it a narcissistic fear where they literally can’t understand how the world could go on without them, or they don’t want to be forgotten? Or is it a physical, visceral fear of being returned to a mound of dirt and decaying, or burning up into ashes? Is it a spiritual fear, where their concept of the afterlife and questions of worthiness come up for reward or punishment? Perhaps they know the consequences of their death will mean the deaths of others, or even just a more difficult path for their loved ones?
With a generated character, premise, even setting or scene, it helps to immediately ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” When people tell you to do this in life, they’re most often hoping to settle fears and point out that even the “worst” really won’t break your life. Forget that and go to that icky dark place for your characters, peeking into the alternate future where the villain wins and the balance of power skews irreparably. How does that look for the character? How does that look for the world? Inverting it the other way works well too in terms of motivation and pressure. Essentially this is putting a carrot in front of the cart and a wolf behind. Let the characters realize this, in the presence of the audience, so it becomes clear what’s at stake.
Generators are wonderful quick-fix tools. Hopefully these points are helpful in bringing this raw material to life!