Does Your Story Have Legs? Creating Characters Who Connect
The Story Begins
In 2001, I was an unpublished writer with a little story idea and big dreams. On a recent car trip, I had spun a tale for my four-year-old daughter about how the house we were driving to might not be where we expected, because you know how houses get bored and wander around at night, and sometimes they might not quite make it home again?
This was going to be my first book; I was sure of it. I could see the house walking through moonlit streets. I could picture a little girl – Bella, I called her – staring out of her window in wonder. I could imagine the problems this wandering habit might cause for her family, and how Bella would be on the side of the house and encourage its night-time adventures.
But Bella and the Wandering House was not my first book. Publishers said encouraging things about the concept and the writing, but that the story was lacking something. I didn’t know what that something was – and if I’m honest, possibly even thought those publishers were wrongheaded, short-sighted and various other adjectives besides. In any case, after many failed attempts at re-drafting, I shelved the idea.
A Lot to Learn
Twelve years later, I dusted it off. By that time, I had several books under my belt, and without quite realising it, had learned a thing or two about what stories need. It was immediately obvious to me that those publishers had been right, that I had been wrongheaded, short-sighted and various other adjectives besides. That what had been lacking in the story was that most crucial of things: a strong motivation for my character, a deep sense of their connection to the story.
Solving for ‘Why?’
In my original story, the house was wandering around because it was bored. It failed to return home simply because it ran out of time and energy. It settled down in a handy vacant space, chosen purely for the sake of proximity. But if character is at the heart of storytelling – which to me it absolutely always is – then a strong and deeply felt motivation should be at the heart of every character. I needed to give the house a stronger reason for its night-time journeys. Was it looking for something or someone? Was it training for the House Olympics? Was it trying to get away from something? Who or what? And why? Always why! These days, when I’m writing, I think of this as ‘Solving for Why’, and it is the single most important thing I do in the early stages of any story. I encourage anyone who wants to write to do the same: ask yourself what it is your character wants, why they want it and then work to make that reason as strong as you can, connecting it internally to as many aspects of the story as possible.
Rewriting with Purpose
When I rewrote Bella and the Wandering House with this in mind, it was transformed. No longer was the house just wandering around because it was bored, but – spoiler alert! – because it was looking for the ocean. Because part of it – Bella’s very own bedroom – was built from the timbers of an old boat. Her dearly loved grandfather’s old boat, which he used to take Bella out on with grandma, who had since passed away, putting an end to their shared sailing adventures.
Do you see what I mean about those internal connections? Not just that the house is built from boat timber, but that the boat has a deep connection to Bella and her grandfather, to something they, too, have lost and will be highly motivated to restore, in a new and surprising way.
Once I have these pieces in place – these strong motivations and complex connections – I know I have a story with legs.
Or perhaps, in the case of my newest book, a story with the wind in its sails.
Characters and Connections
When I sat down to write a sequel to Bella and the Wandering House, I began with an image of the house out on the ocean. And because I’ve learned a thing or two, rather than just sending it out sailing on an adventurous whim, I sat down and solved for ‘why’. Why might it be out there? Perhaps Bella had sent it? But why? Perhaps she’s the one looking for something this time. But what and why? In the spirit of connecting as many pieces of the story as possible, maybe it could be something related to Grandad? Oh! In the first book, he is always giving her wonderful birthday presents, so maybe she wants to do the same for him. But what could be out there that he would want? Ah! Perhaps something he previously lost. Or – again, strengthening those connections between parts – what if Bella was responsible for its loss? And has felt guilty ever since! Now, even though I have no idea what that lost thing is going to be, I feel like the story has sufficient momentum, the wind gathering behind it. Now, I can think about writing Bella and the Voyaging House in a form that won’t take 14 years to see the light of day.
It did take me two years, because I still have no idea how to plot, but that’s another story. What I can do now is write characters and do so in such a way that the reader can’t help but be drawn into the character’s quest, sharing their struggles and triumphs, sighing and cheering alongside them. Writers are often told to ‘raise the stakes’ in their work, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to add action or drama to ramp up the plot itself. Instead, try going back to character, to solving for ‘why’, to weaving your character and their motivation so deeply into the fabric of things that the reader’s experience of the plot becomes more intimate and compelling. Take it from me and my restless house: there’s no surer way to write a story with legs.