Phillip B. Conrad

June 3, 2009

Brainstorming Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 1:27 am

The book ‘No Plot, No Problem’ clicked with me. I seem to work well under tight deadlines and that’s what it’s all about. I’m about to embark on another relatively short period of intense writing. This time I’m doing a lot more preparation than you normally would for the NaNoWrMo competition. It’s part of a new theory of writing I’m working on. I’ll elaborate more on that as I develop it. It’s highly experimental at this stage.

What isn’t experimental is the emphasis on well-defined characters. Starting a large writing project without a really good idea of what characters you’ll have it’s pretty risky. Occasionally, some really cool character might wander into the story, but I’ve experienced mainly the opposite. I needed some important characters and only the bland and shallow showed up at the auditions.

When you’re on a dead-line, even a self-imposed one, you have take what you’ve got and run with it. Eventually, your motley crew takes shape and starts to behave like real inhabitants of books, but not until you’ve wasted thousands of words of on-the-job training on them. So, I’ve been brainstorming my characters for a couple of months now. It’s time to formally nail down the details of the team I’m taking into this project.

To do this, I employ a method I learned from Robert McKee. John Vorhaus and Jack Bickham have also promoted similar techniques, but the discovery of the yellow legal pads belongs entirely to McKee. He called it writing out the cliches, but I like to think of it as exhaustive brainstorming. You’ll need at least one yellow legal pad, and a very fast pen.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, this really does work better as a manual writing exercise. Honestly the yellow paper does work better than white. Start on a fresh page and make some notes as to what the role of the character will be. I usually don’t have names until really late in the project and will often write more than half of the piece with placeholder names. So I have character descriptions like ‘protagonist,’ ‘passive ally,’ ‘old friend,’ etc. One character at a time, start brainstorming possible character attributes. Make sure you leave the space to the left of the margin empty for now.

You need to be as unhinged as possible. You also need to write as fast as possible. Just list everything you can think of, no matter how crazy that could apply to this character role. You need to push yourself beyond the comfortable ideas, into the realm of truly new ideas. The initial ideas will almost always be the most obvious Hollywood style cliches: The hooker with the heart of gold, The evil, big business tycoon, the beautiful person with the single ugly aspect or attribute. It’s O.K. You need to get all this crap out of yourself before you get to the good stuff. When you feel the pen seizing up in your hand, you’re almost there, you just need to push your creativity to go a little bit faster than your memory of all the characters you’ve seen before in movies and on T.V. It’s worth noting that even if you are brainstorming extremely abstract and fine details, like ‘golden hair,’ your initial ideas will still be pieces that assemble into cliches.

After you push past the cliche barrier, you will see some really interesting ideas appearing on the paper. Use the space to the left of the margin to mark the ones ideas you’ll use and the ones you reject. Often your ideas will need elaboration. When this happens, circle them on the main list, write the good idea at the top of a fresh page and start the process over again. The whole point of this is to get past the obvious. You need to break free of self-censorship and work faster than your memory recall.

This method can be applied to lots of aspects of a story. I find it especially useful for determining big scenes. If you start a page with the words: Bad things that can happen in the office, it might take you a while to get past situations you actually saw on the T.V. show, The Office, but eventually, you’ll be spinning new ideas of workplace dread to put your characters through.

I go back to this technique all throughout the writing process. When I’m in the midst of a long project, I typically have one or two brainstorming sessions in between each session of keyboard writing. It really helps clear the log-jams and give me more options on where to take a story. Give it a try. Yellow legal pads are very inexpensive, and I bet you already own a few pens.


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