My first order of business once I decided to focus on character building this year was to go online and shop for a character-building book. I am locationally challenged when it come to educational opportunities and right now, even an online class would be difficult to commit to. But writing craft books are great because I can pick them up whenever I have a few spare moments to get inspired. I had never heard of Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card before but the reviews on Amazon were fantastic so I ordered it immediately.
Side Note: This post isn’t a book review but I will say, I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book and I can’t get enough of it. His points are right on and his voice is so compelling it doesn’t even feel like learning (and I already love learning). If you are interested in improving your character-building skills, I definitely recommend this book.
1,000 Ideas in an Hour Exercise
In Chapter 2, Card introduces an exercise he calls “A Thousand Ideas in an Hour.” He has used this exercise at workshops, though the example he gave was taken from questions he posed to a class of fourth graders. The idea of the exercise is to start with a simple question and build story from it by continuing to ask cause and result questions. Each question may give one or ten possible ideas (this is how 1,000 is really possible). Pulling from one of those ideas, another question is asked, and then another, until either a story has formed from a character or a character has formed from a story idea.
Card provides us with this example (shortened):
Do you want a story about a boy or a girl?
–A boy! No, a girl!
OK then, we won’t decide yet. How old is this person?
–Ten! No, twelve!
Twelve? Why twelve? What happens to you when you’re twelve?
–When you’re twelve, you get more money.
How does that happen?
What can go wrong when you’re babysitting?
And his example goes on like that for several pages as we watch a group of fourth-grade students build a story about babysitting a child who won’t stop crying. After trying everything, including calling the baby’s parents, they call an ambulance and just when it shows up, so do the parents–right after the baby has stopped crying. It’s a fun, cute example but it’s easy to see how a story can be developed from nothing but a single question.
My 1,000 Ideas
My situation was opposite. I had a story (a story that already had a first draft, even) but after outlining, character profiles, and watching my main character develop over several hundred pages, I still didn’t feel like I really knew her. So when Card mentioned this exercise could be used backward, I thought it would be a great opportunity to ask some new questions about my character and see what came of it.
Because I knew my story so well and was afraid I would put myself back into the same hole I’d been stuck in, I asked my best friend and brainstorming buddy to meet me at our favorite coffee shop to try this out with me. She loves to brainstorm with me but other than our initial chats about this novel–long before I wrote it and it developed into a different story entirely–she didn’t know much more than the general plot line. Which was perfect. I need fresh ideas, not biased ones. It took us a while to get into the groove of the exercise but once we did, the questions started coming in rapid succession. Mostly the format followed the sequence of me asking questions and then her providing possible answers. I was careful not to sway the conversation too much (though there were times when, of course, I didn’t want to go on a wild goose hunt following a story line that had nothing to do with my book).
By the time our hour was over, I was thrilled with what we’d uncovered about my main character and that we had even come up with some potential additional conflicts. Interestingly, my friend designed a character very similar to what I’d already written (either we think too much alike or my character is perfect for the situation I’ve put her in–I’ll go with the latter) but with much deeper motivations–something I’ve struggled with since I first started writing fiction. The combination of a new perspective and being forced to ask more questions when I would have normally stopped at the first, pushed me past my usual character-building barriers. Not only did I learn more about my character, I learned more about myself as a writer.
Your 1,000 Ideas
Are you starting a new story or does your current story need some fresh ideas? The exercise is really simple. I recommend doing it with a partner or with a group, simply because a writer’s story ideas are based on her own thoughts and experiences so she’s bound to keep coming up with similar ideas over and over again. Adding some other people’s thoughts and experiences to the mix will help you expand your way of thinking. You can ask the questions and have your partner give you answers, or you can have your partner ask the questions while you provide the answers. I think either way is beneficial. You may even want to do both at some point.
The most important part of the exercise is to focus on cause and result questions (Why? and What now?), and to keep your mind open to even the most far-fetched possibilities. You might be surprised by what inspires you.