Some writers dream up characters and write stories about them.
Other writers dream up crimes and seek characters to commit them.
By “crime” I mean the idea for the story, the situation, the plot, the high concept, the story problem. In science fiction, it’s sometimes called the gimmick (but I don’t think that’s fair).
I’m in that second group. The first impulse of a story for me is usually some weird answer to a “What if?” question. And sometimes, it’s just a good “What if?” question with no clear answer. To get the answer, I write the story.
1) What if a big creepy shark attacked a New England resort community?
2) Maybe you love alternate history stories. What if someone could travel to parallel realities and see how history, and his or her own life, could have worked out differently? (This is the premise of the novel I just finished. In other words, Sliders… only good.)
3) Let’s try a romance. What if a woman fell in love with a billionaire?
So fix your story idea in your mind, and ask, “Who would be most hurt by this?” Imagine a character who would be the most emotionally affected by the situation you want to write about.
Go ahead and twist the knife. We writers are all about pain. (And readers like it that way. They want to read about people at the end of their rope. Otherwise, why bother?)
Got it? That’s your character.
So how about this:
1) Who would be most freaked out by that shark? The sheriff, of course — someone charged with the responsibility of keeping the islanders safe. Someone who moved there from New York, specifically to escape violence and bloodshed. His children came too… and they love the beach. To top it off, he’s afraid of water.
For the islanders, the shark is scary. For Sheriff Brody, the shark is a nightmare.
2) For my reality-hopping novel, I created a character whose parents died young, leaving him with a younger brother and sister to care for. He desires a woman who is just out of his reach. He feels unfairly shackled by fate, and the chance to see other worlds where he could live his dreams — instead of feeling tortured by them — is irresistible to him.
Yet, he loves his family. His connection to them makes him unable to forget his origins, and drives his internal conflict. Soon enough, he’d sacrifice anything to get back to his home.
3) The key to romance is to have two characters fall in love… and then come up with as many obstacles as you can to keep them apart. So how can we torture this nice lady? If the man is rich, then perhaps she’s poor, visibly poor, painfully poor. Of course, she’s in a position to see him every day, so her agony is perpetual. Perhaps she cleans his office (or perhaps she’s a lowly prostitute, or perhaps she’s tasked with planning his wedding to another woman — ouch! Are you seeing how big-shot screenwriters use this technique?).
Maybe she’s one of his employees, and she’s downsized. Now she’s cut off from him. To me, that one sounds like the catalyst, the event that sets the story in motion.
We read fiction to be entertained, and to get wisdom. Writers can satisfy both of these needs by showing characters who are used up, burnt out, up against the wall, out of options — in other words, people who are so wounded by their problem that they’ll do something profound in order to solve it.
Hurt your characters. A lot. That might mean choosing characters who will be hurt the most.