Stories aren’t about plots, they’re about the people
Cedar Grove is a tiny town about a mile and a hair past nowhere. They’ve got two stoplights total and an old brick schoolhouse that also serves as the town hall and bingo headquarters on Thursdays. They’re very proud of their one-half of a fast-food restaurant. The other half is technically in Butner – not the same Butner to which you may be familiar with. Time rolls at a slow pace in Cedar Grove where the most exciting thing that ever happened was the time Cleetus Harley’s pig made front page of the paper for having borned her a piglet with three tails. These stories, they aren’t fancy. They’re just about the people. Kelly Swanson
This is how I open many of my storytelling performances and I have spent years “apologizing” for the fact that my stories don’t have strong plots, just strong characters. I always hoped that my audiences would form a connection with my characters – a connection that would somehow make their lives better having known the characters in my small southern town.
So imagine my surprise when over the course of my studies (I am always studying comedy, writing, storytelling, speaking, etc. ) I ran across a book written by one of my favorite comedy writers (Janet Evanovich) where she states that stories aren’t about plots, they’re about the characters. This is not to say that a story doesn’t need a plot, or that plots aren’t important. It is to say that with weak characters, your plot is useless. So if you remember anything today, remember that the story is in the people. Let me say it louder: THE STORY IS IN THE PEOPLE.
She’s not the first one to say it, and most certainly not the last, but for the first time I stopped and listened and let it soak into my brain as another writing truth ingrained in my heart. (Here’s where my husband would tell me to quit being so dramatic. ) And so the topic I have chosen to ramble on about for this month is developing characters. I have seen time and time again that when you take the time to fully develop a character, the story will write itself. Did you hear that? Spend time on the character and the story will write itself. I’ve seen it happen over and over. So trust me on this.
I’m a big believer in showing rather than telling, so instead of giving you a list of ways to develop a character, I’m going to show you how I developed a character just last week, and how opening up your mind to these characters will unlock story trails beyond imagination. Okay, so maybe I’m being dramatic again. Let’s just get to work and see if I can show you what I mean.
I’m huffing and puffing away on my treadmill (where I get my best creative work done) and I’m reading what Janet Evanovich (in her book “How I Write”) has to say about the characters in her books. And I was so intrigued and inspired by her insights that I immediately got out my life journal (yes, I actually meant it when I said I had a life journal) and decided to create a character right there on the spot. No story, no plot, no deep hidden meanings – just a character. And as every good writer knows, perfect characters are boring. We want characters who have flaws, who make mistakes – characters who are real.
So I trusted the first person to pop into my head and decided on a girl (because I am one, and know nothing about being a boy and don’t want to do the research to figure it out. ) How about a girl who teaches dance in small town. Is it the best character in the world? Who knows, this is just practice so I’ll go with it. Okay, now what?
Writers should write what they know. So if you haven’t been in the military, you probably shouldn’t have your main character be a soldier unless you are willing to do the necessary homework to understand it from a soldier’s perspective. I’m too lazy. So I know my character will be somebody I can relate to on some level. Except that I know nothing about dancing? So why did I choose a dance teacher? Beats me. Problem is, I never danced or had family who danced so I don’t know anything about that. That’s not good.
How about this: She’s never had a dance lesson in her life. She has no idea what she’s doing. Now that I can relate to. And other people can relate as well to the concept of being somewhere where we’re in a little bit over our head. She and I are sounding more alike already. And what a great situation to place a character, for nothing opens the door for comedy better than placing a characters in situations where they don’t naturally belong. I’m not sure that made sense. Remember the show Bosom Buddies from years ago? The one about the two men who had to dress as women to live in their building? That’s what I mean.
Wow, now that opens the door for humor and conflict. But how can she be a dance teacher having never taught dance? It’s got to make sense. Easy…. she filled in one day for the regular dance teacher who never came back. It’s a small town. Nobody else wanted the job, the kids kept showing up, and one thing led to another…and here she is. Stuck. She doesn’t want to quit and let the kids down. She’s staying out of obligation. But secretly liking it.
Already I can see the potential for stories here – the experiences with the kids. But I’m jumping ahead. See? The story is already wanting to write itself. But back to the character.
Every character wants something – sometimes more than one thing. They may want physical things or emotional things or both. So I need to make this character want something. How about this: She wants to be bigger than the small town where she lives. She’s got something missing in her life. Problem is, she doesn’t have any idea what, and she keeps chasing after different things each week (each story. ) She’s indecisive. At this point my main character has some qualities like me, and some not. That’s okay.
Not only does every story’s main character want something, there has to be something standing in their way of getting it. This is often referred to as the conflict. Notice that we aren’t really worried about what our story is going to be about. We aren’t getting into the story’s plot where you travel down the road of conflict and resolution. We are talking about the main character’s conflict. What makes her tick. The parts about her that may never show up on paper – but that we need to know before we ever begin our story. Does that make sense? It’s almost as if you are doing a report on your character before you even think about writing your story. When you get to writing a story about her, you will find ways to SHOW us what she is like through her actions, rather than a paragraph that opens up and tells us all about her. That’s boring. Yuck. Anyway, back to the main character.
What are some other things about her? At this point I’m just going to list some stuff as it pops into my head. I may not use all of it. I don’t want to give all my quirks (the things that make that character interesting) to the same character. I may want to give her a friend with some of those quirks. But we’ll get to secondary characters in a minute.
Let me take a minute to explain to you something about characters. You want them to be realistic and make a connection to your audience. You want your audience to have a stake in your character – to be rooting for them. You also want your audience to have a stake in your other characters. You want your characters to grow, but also stay true to who they are. This may sound like a lot of work, and sometimes it is. But it’s worth it if you want to have a good story. And sometimes just coming up with a brief description of your character is better than nothing.
These are some possible traits for this main character, including things I need to think about in more depth:
She tries new fashions and never quite pulls them off
Everything relates to food
She’s very uncoordinated
Wants to save the world
Thinks something is missing in her life
Drives a van with Miss Pinky Lee’s School of Dance on the side
Curses when she’s mad
Eats when she’s upset
Is a magnet for guys she shouldn’t be with
Wants something more than this town has to offer
What was her childhood like? Overweight, funny, failed at most things she did which she happily acknowledged and kept going anyway
What has made her wish so desperately for something out there?
She grew up in a conservative church and is conflicted now
Okay, that’s just a start. Who knows how big the list will grow or what will change and remain the same. Think how much can happen to this character when you start unlocking her personality. I already have so many ideas for stories about her dating life, her relationship with these kids, her uncoordinated attempts to teach, the recitals she has not knowing anything about dance. I even made of list of the messages that could be taught through the stories, like beauty is on the inside, etc. But that’s jumping ahead. We’re only talking about characters today.
What other characters will flavor these stories?
And that brings us to the antagonists or secondary characters as I like to call them. Remember that knowing these characters is as important as knowing your main character.
So I started thinking about what other characters would show up in these stories in addition to the main character? (Notice that I’m already seeing this as a group of stories – all from the creation of one character!)
I’m figuring this to be somewhat of a small town – and southern. Because that’s what I know. This could be anywhere though and still be a good trail for stories. I decided to have my dance studio be an old fast-food chicken place with a faint outline of a chicken still on the wall, and on rainy days you can still smell grease.
The first characters that come to mind are the kids who come to the class (lots of ways to go with that) and the mothers who bring them. Oh my, can you imagine all the types of mothers you can have? And don’t forget all the conflicts that each kid/mother brings with them. When I write these stories I will not work super hard to come up with descriptions on every character – at least not as much as I developed the main character unless it’s a story where the secondary character has a big role.
Then I started thinking about other characters who could come in contact with the dance class. Wouldn’t old people be fun? What flavor they would add. But how would they end up in the stories? How about if the dance studio is next door to the old folks home. Perfect. You’d get a lot of old people shuffling by wanting to see what’s going on. And I think old people make wonderful characters. Think of the many traits you could give your character. If you’re familiar with the current sitcom, King of Queens, think of the father played by Jerry Stiller. Is he not perfect? I think he is one of the greatest characters ever invented on TV. But that’s just my opinion.
And what about my character, Booker Diggs, who in an earlier story of mine was a beer drinking fishing junkie who lost a bet and had to take dance lessons. Turns out he loves it. What a great character to have in the dance studio on a regular basis! I just got chills.
I could go on and on, but enough already. You get the point. You probably don’t find this as exciting as I do, but isn’t it neat to see what has blossomed after just creating an imaginary character? You can do this too! Just please don’t take mine.
Even if you are a storyteller who doesn’t write his own stories, you can still take the time to develop the character in the story you are retelling. Even the good old Jack tale could benefit from a little character development. Just take some time to sit down and think about that character. This is what will make your story relevant to your audience. Then let those qualities shine through in what he says and does. I promise your story will be better for it and your audience will appreciate that you have a character that they can believe in.
I wish you all the best and hope that something in this rambling of mine made sense. Remember that stories aren’t about the plot, they’re about the people. And if you’re having trouble making up some people, good grief, go sit in the airport for an hour and take your journal.
It's all fun and games ‘til the hair gets messed up