Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


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I enjoy making up characters, but I'm not sure where to go from there. How do I take all these characters and write actual stories?

With so many characters, you already have an arsenal of potential stories. Now, it's just a matter of coaxing out the conflict. Choose one of those characters and determine his most urgent desire.

While desire often springs from emotion, make sure to stay specific and concrete. Instead of having your character on a quest for love, have him go after a kiss from his date. A character who wants to quell his loneliness may seek out friends each night to go to a nightclub. The concrete desire gives the character something specific to work toward, and in the end the reader will know if he's achieved his goal or not.

As your character goes in pursuit of this goal, obstacles should spring up to block the journey. A character who wants to make the perfect meal for her new in-laws (and, by doing so, gain their acceptance) may find her local store out of the lean meat her father-in-law favors. She might feel frazzled in the kitchen as the hour of their arrival approaches and burn her fingers, rendering her unable to cut the vegetables for the salad. Out of frustration, she might quarrel with her husband, dividing her concentration. And when she hits the point of no return—the baked ravioli burnt and smoking on the stovetop and the doorbell ringing—this character will really show what she's made of.

Make sure to include both physical and emotional conflict. If a character is in the midst of a fistfight, there will be a lot of action but little impact unless emotions inform the scuffle. Conversely, if a character broods over poor grades and doesn't do anything to get himself out of his predicament, the reader may lose interest. Adding different kinds of conflicts can also make a story more interesting. A young woman who flees in her car after an argument with her boyfriend is going to be in even more of a pickle when she gets in a fender bender.

In fiction, character and plot are locked in a cooperative relationship. Beginning with an interesting character can lead you straight into compelling action.

Here's something that might help you find a character's desire. Answer questions about your character. You might even want to use Gotham's character questionnaire. By delving deeper into the character, a desire may emerge. One question, for example, asks if your character has a secret. What would he do if that secret were in jeopardy? What lengths would he go in order to keep it under wraps? Viola! An urgent desire.