If you already have a story idea, it is a simple
matter to create a whole cast of characters that will grow out of your
plot. In this lesson we're going to lay out a method of
developing characters from a thumbnail sketch of what your story is
The most concise way to
describe the key elements of a story is with a "Thumbnail
Sketch." This is simply a short line or two, less than a
paragraph, that gets right to the heart of the matter. You see
them all the time in TV Guide listings and in the short descriptions
that show up on cable or satellite television program information.
A thumbnail sketch of The
Matrix, for example, might read, "A computer hacker discovers
that the world we know is really just a huge computer program.
He is freed from the program by a group of rebels intent on destroying
the system, and ultimately joins them as their most powerful cyber
Clearly, there is a lot
more to the finished movie than that, but the thumbnail sketch
provides enough information to get a good feel for what the story is
about. Generally, such a description contains information about
the plot, since the audience will choose what they want to watch on
the kind of things they expect to happen in a story. If it is an
action story, there may be no mention of characters at all as in,
"A giant meteor threatens to demolish the earth." If
it is a love story, there may be little plot but several characters,
as in, "A young Amish girl falls in love with a traveling
salesman. Her father and his chosen match for her oppose the
romance, but her free-minded mother and exiled aunt encourage
Whether or not characters
are specifically mentioned in a thumbnail sketch, they are always at
least inferred. For your own story, then, the first step is to
come up with a short description like those used as illustrations
above. For the purposes of this lesson, we'll propose the
following hypothetical story to use as an example:
Suppose our story is described as the tribulations of a town
Marshall trying to fend off a gang of outlaws who bleed the town dry.
The only explicitly called for characters are the Marshall and the
gang. So, we'll list them as required characters of the story.
Certainly you could tell a story with just those characters, but it
might seem a little under-populated. Realistically, you'd expect
the gang to have a leader and the town to have a mayor. The Marshall
might have a deputy. And, if the town is being bled dry, then some
businessmen and shopkeepers would be in order as well.
the second stage of the process is to step a bit beyond what is
actually written and to slightly enlarge the dramatic world described
to include secondary and support characters too.
Finally, pull out all the stops and list some completely
inappropriate characters that would take a heap of explaining to your
reader/audience if they showed up in your story.
Richard Nixon, Martians, the Ghost of Julius Caesar
Although you'll likely discard most of these characters, just the
process of coming up with them can lead to new ideas and directions
for your story.
For example, the town Marshall might become more interesting if he
was a history buff, specifically reading about the Roman Empire. In
his first run-in with the gang, he is knocked out cold with a
concussion. For the rest of the story, he keeps imagining the Ghost of
Julius Caesar, giving him unwanted advice.
Now, you assemble all the characters you have
proposed for your story so far, be they Expected, Usual, Unusual, or
Outlandish. In our example we have:
Ulysses S. Grant
The Gang Leader
The Town Mayor
The task at hand is to weed out of this list of prospective
characters all the ones we are sure we don't want in our story.
At first blush, this might seem easy, but before you make hasty
decisions, keep in mind the use we came up with for Caesar's Ghost.
Consider: How might traveling acrobats be employed dramatically?
As a place for the marshal to hide in greasepaint when the gang
temporarily takes over the town? Or how about if the school
teacher befriends them, and then employs their aid in busting the
deputy out of jail when he falls under the gang's control?
How about Ulysses S. Grant showing up on his way to a meeting
with the governor, and the gang members must impersonate honest
town's folk until he and his armed cavalry escort have departed?
Could make for a very tense or a very funny scene, depending on how
you play it.
Try to put each of these characters in juxtaposition with each of
the others, at least as a mental exercise, to see if any kind of
chemistry boils up between them. In this way, you may
find that some of the least likely characters on your initial
consideration turn out to be almost indispensable to the development
of your story!
You may not have noticed, but a lot of what we
have just done with characters has had the added benefit of
developing whole sequences of events, series of interactions, and
additional plot lines. In fact, working with characters in
this way often does as much for your story's plot as it does in the
creation of characters themselves.
Hence, it is never too early to work with
characters. As soon as you have an initial story idea, no
matter how lacking in detail or thinly developed it may be, it can
pay to work with your characters as a means of adding to your plot!
Open a TV Listing Guide or view some descriptions on your cable or
Pick 3 descriptions from movies you know and list the explicitly
called for characters.
Base on your knowledge of each story, list the usual characters,
unusual characters, and outlandish characters (if any).
Pick 3 descriptions from movies you don't know and list the explicitly
called for characters.
Use your imagination to devise usual characters, unusual characters,
and outlandish characters for each story.
Watch each of the three movies you hadn't seen and see how your
proposed characters compare to what was actually done.
Consider that you might write your own story based on the description
with the characters you created and have it be so different from the
actual movie that it has become your own story! (This is also a
handy trick for coming up with your own original story ideas based on
the hundreds of descriptions available each week. More than
likely, your creative concepts will be nothing like the movie the
description was portraying!)
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