Saturday, 11 April 2015

How To Turn A Story Idea Into A Story: Part Two

So Tell Me, Why Do You Want This Job?

In my previous post I looked at how to put the 'So What?' into a potential plot; brainstorming reasons for the situation that arises from a Story Idea. Now we've chucked those into our story-pot, we need some more ingredients - and for this post, I think we need to look at characters. Most specifically, main characters.

We already did this a little bit in our previous brainstorming session, but only at a very superficial level, i.e. we decided what kind of people - from the sections of  the society particular to our story - would likely be involved in the scenarios we had. Now we need to drill deeper and get ourselves some actual spokespeople - vehicles we can use to take us down this story road and show us the scenery on the way until we get to our final destination. And since it's likely to be long old trip, with plenty of bumps in the road, unexpected detours and dodgy roadside eateries, our vehicles need to be up to the job. We'll need to be happy to travel with them, trusting that they're not going to screw us over and dump us on the roadside without warning and that they'll eventually get us to the end in one piece. 

So how do we determine who those vehicles, i.e. characters, should be? Well, the same way the boss of a big company decides which of his employees should get big fat promotions. Does he gather them all in one big room and then stand on a high balcony and point randomly at individuals? No, he calls them into his office for an interview. And one of the first - and certainly most important - questions he asks each candidate is "Why do you want this job?"

Obviously anyone who answers "It pays more money," "It means I don't have to work weekends anymore," or "I get a company car and a discount on triple-chocolate muffins in the staff coffee shop" will get shuffled to the bottom of the pile pretty quickly. Because when the Boss asks "why do you want this job?" he doesn't actually mean 'why do you want this job?' - he means "what are you gonna do to make it worth my while to give you this job?" He's not looking to make his minions happy, he's looking for people who are up for the challenge of taking on a way bigger dose of responsibility and stress in their working lives, in exchange for a little more money and perks. Even if it ultimately messes with their relationships, social lives and overall levels of happiness with life in general. (A cynical view perhaps, but no less true for it.)

And... that's even more true for the main characters of a story.

Since conflict is what drives all stories, it's a given that you're going to be putting your characters through fifty shades of hell in yours. So you need folks who can take that kind of punishment, not the ones who aren't thinking any further than the slightly bigger pay packet and extra-wheelie office chair. Those characters gotta be keen. Keen and hungry.

However, they can't just be keen and hungry in a generic, 'ooh yeah, I love me a challenge - bring it on!' kind of way. It needs to be specific. The ones who deserve the job are the ones who can say "I want this job because I can see it has these opportunities to achieve these things, and here are the skills I have that will help me do that." In other words, casting all employee-related metaphors aside for a moment, the main characters need goals that establish and feed that all-important conflict within the plot. Not just everyday Joe or Jane who only got the job of Main Character because no-one else showed up for the interview.

So let's put this into practice with our story-foetus now. To start with, it would make sense to have at least one main character from each side of the fence, as it were - one Implanter and one Implantee. We'll start with the Implantee. I'm going to make her a girl because - well, I'm a girl so that makes it a bit easier for me to get into her head. We'll make her age about late teens, so that she's still young enough to be potentially rebellious (for that yummy conflict) but old enough to assume a level of responsibility on the overall mission that enables her to make stuff happen. But she's not going to be the only one - there's going to be quite a few of them on this spaceship. So... who to pick? Who's the special one of the bunch? And what defines 'special' anyway?

Maybe she's the smartest/nicest/most popular of the bunch. Bleurgh, *raspberry noise* no thanks, let's not have the Disney Princess, okay? Perhaps she has some super-ability that marks her out from the others then - a massively high IQ or - ooh, I know, she can read people's minds! Hmmm yeah, maybe.. nah. Let's face it, the 'amazing chosen one' is a cliché that's been done to death already. I think we need to take a different angle to freshen this up. How about if this thing that makes her special is something that would generally be regarded as a handicap by society - something that would make living with a chip that controls your thoughts more difficult? What about.. if she was somewhere on the Asperger's scale? That would cause problems with social interaction, interpreting the body language of others and, in some cases, distinguishing between literal and metaphorical conversation - obviously we'd need to do some more research into it, but this is a promising starting-point, with plenty of opportunities for conflict.

But now we have a problem. The Implantees are supposed to represent the 'unflawed' of society to lead the New Earth colony - and while the other Implantees will have had the instinct to prejudice against others removed by the chips, the Implanters won't. Some of them are going to feel this girl shouldn't be a part of the project. Obviously no-one could've stopped her being there from the start if she was born on the ship, but if they don't want her there now what do they do with her? They can't just kill her off... can they? No, and they're not likely to try - but they could try to reduce her status somehow.

There would probably be two tiers of  hierarchy amongst the colonists. The scientists, doctors and professionally-trained people - and Implantees with high enough intelligence to train for those jobs in the future - would be the 'elite' Tier 1 class. Meanwhile, those who are less academically-inclined would do the everyday jobs like catering, maintenance, food production and the like, and form the 'standard' Tier 2 class. Our Asperger's girl could be assigned to Tier 1, partly due to her parents being Tier 1 but also because she's intelligent enough to meet the criteria for it, and those against her could feel she should be downgraded to Tier 2 because of her 'disability.' Oooh - now we have a potential Antagonist as well as a potential Ally within the ranks of the Implanters! The Ally would most logically be one of her parents... a doctor or psychiatrist perhaps, so that they'd be the one who fully understood the characteristics of Asperger's at the same time as having the protective instincts of a parent wanting the best for their child. The Antagonist? Well, there might well be more than one, but remember - we need the special one to make the story pop. Well, it would make sense if they were Tier 2 themselves I suppose, because then you could factor in jealousy... but that still only narrows the field a little bit - and a little bit is not good enough. We need more than that.

How about... if the antagonist is the ex-partner of the Ally Implanter?  Maybe our Ally left our Tier 2 Antagonist for our Asperger girl's mother  - a Tier 1 class like him - before the space mission began? And now, the Antagonist has a child of her own with a new partner, and resents the fact that her child is 'only' a Tier 2 like her, while the 'flawed' child her ex-husband had with the woman he left her for is a Tier 1. Which adds in another layer of conflict if we factor in that her child, as an Implantee, would be free of the prejudice his mother feels. If he was also our Asperger girl's best friend that would annoy the heck out of his mother and complicate things even further... yep, this is coming together nicely now...

Okay, so let's recap on everything we've got so far:

We have a long space journey for the purposes of humans colonising a new, Earth-like planet, so distant the timespan will take two generations to complete. Since it is the offspring of the current crew who will eventually become the new colonists, all children born aboard the ship are implanted with microchips that can be tailored to censor all 'inappropriate' thoughts, ideologies and prejudices, with the intention of creating a more tolerant and peaceful race of humans for the new colony. But a Tier 1 doctor realises his daughter has Asperger's Syndrome, which becomes harder to conceal as she gets older in spite of his best efforts to teach her how to 'hide' her condition. Inevitably, some other crew members feel her 'disability' will compromise the 'perfection' of the rest of the group; one of the most vocal naysayers is his ex-wife, a Tier 2 class he split from just before they set off for this mission. Even though she's since married another Tier 2 man and has a son with him, she's still bitter that her Tier 1 ex left her for a Tier 1 woman and the daughter they had together is 'automatically' a Tier 1 even with her Asperger's diagnosis, while her own son is 'only' a Tier 2 like her and her new husband. She is leading a movement to have his daughter 'downgraded,' purely on the strength of having Asperger's Syndrome. However, it seems her own son is not helping her in this endeavour; as a fellow Implantee, he and our Asperger's girl are best friends, and he doesn't understand why his mother is so angry with him about this.

Yaaay! We've done it then! We've got a real, proper story now, right?

Errr... nope. Not yet we haven't. Still a long way to go. And in my next post we'll look at what else we're going to need.

(We also haven't got names for our four main characters yet. If you have any suggestions, please leave then in the Comments section and I'll be glad to use 'em. If not, I'll dream some up for Part Three.)

<<Part One: Putting The 'So What?' In Your Plot

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