My Problem and How an Expert Storyteller Helped Me Solve It

Strangers / Blue is by Spanish photographer Rocio Montoya. To see more of her work click on the image.

Lately, I’ve been having a problem with someone I’d thought I was close with. This problem has completely stalled my progression in writing A Gift from Aurth. The only way to deal with it is to hash it out with them now. If I don’t, the story will never get written. But you’ll never guess who the person is. His name is Theodore Mullens.

Yes, I’m afraid so. The person who is causing me all this grief is my own character! The problem I’m having with him is that we are actually not as close as I thought we were. I barely know the guy. Not knowing him well enough makes it hard to write a story about him. Seems kinda ludicrous, doesn’t it? I mean, I’m the one who made him up!

Creating a character is much harder than I thought it would be. There are many things I could tell you about Theodore. I know the year he was born, I can tell you his favourite subject in school and I could pick what he would eat off of any restaurant menu. But knowing bits of information about someone does not mean you actually know who they are. The facts I know are trivial parts of his life I could find out during our first conversation at a party where we’re forced to mingle for a few minutes. Though Theodore is a character in a story, he represents a person. People are far more complex and complicated than their surface-level selves. To write the story I want to write, I have to develop Theodore past the awkward party chit-chat and bond with him on the level of a childhood best friend. If I am unable to do this now, then you’ll stand no chance at it when it comes time to get to know him through reading the story.

How am I going to do this? Well, I have my work cut out for me. When I started writing this post I was hoping for a eureka moment. And I think I may have had it, thanks to an expert storyteller.

 A few weeks ago I posted a TED Talk by filmmaker Andrew Stanton. In his talk, he shares some of his tips to writing a great story. Stanton is the creator of box-office hits such as “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” so the man knows what he is talking about. The first time I listened to him, I jotted down notes on basically everything he said. There was, however, one phrase I underlined and starred. He says, “All well-drawn characters have a spine.” The idea behind a character’s spine is that everyone has a subconscious goal that drives them forward. It determines the decisions, words and actions a character makes. Harry Potter’s is the courage to defend the people and things he believes in, Atticus Finch’s from “To Kill a Mockingbird” is equal justice for all and the White Rabbit’s from “Alice in Wonderland” is to not be late for his very important date.

So what Theodore Mullens needs is a spine. I’ve thought about this for a couple of days and I think what motivates Theodore is protection. Not a need to protect others, but instead a need to protect himself. My vision of him at the beginning of the story is someone who is guarded and reserved. He has a fear of appearing vulnerable around other people. He shields himself from his fear by not putting himself out there to experience new things or meet new people. I can’t, however, write an entire story about a guy walking around with two shields in his hands, repelling the world around him. Stanton again has a suggestion. He makes reference to the spine being a temperament that is likely unchangeable, but what can happen in the progression of the story is “recognizing it and owning it.” To me that means Theodore will always have his shields but he will have to learn to put them down sometimes so he can allow himself to experience the world around him. I am not exactly sure how that will work for Theodore just yet, but it has put me one step closer to solving my problem with him and working on our friendship.

This idea of a driving force in a character’s life isn’t limited to fiction. Characters are based on people, so real-life people – you and me – must have a dominant goal that drives us forward too. The best way for me to describe mine is as a positive force that compels me to constantly seek beauty in my life and for others. What do you think yours is? Share it in the comments or on Twitter.