The story-in-a-box: open it up and it unpacks itself

One of my favorite parts of creativity is the brainstorm. Writing is fun, but can be hard. Brainstorming is not hard. No idea is bad when you’re brainstorming, silly mortal! Even if you don’t use something you’ve written down, it’s keeping the brain hamster running in its wheel and could lead to other, better ideas. So you can just write down anything that comes to mind and worry about picking out the good stuff later. Until then, it’s limitless possibilities, and you get to just live the story.

I see ideas as boxes. Like a package from Amazon (one of the best kinds of packages, am I right?). It comes to you, you bring it inside. You have an empty room ready for it, and you take it there and open it. BOOM, explosion. Looks like that little idea box has a lot of stuff packed inside.

All the contents of the box begin to fill the room. Some of it is simple and obvious, like furniture — the developments that come easily from the basic idea. Then you have the stuff you have to open up and inspect, the cabinets filled with knickknacks — the more complex parts of the idea you must turn over in your hands/mind to see every bit of it.

If the brainstorm is my favorite part of creativity, then the unpacking is my favorite part of the brainstorm. When one idea leads to another, then another, and it feels like it will never end. I have that going on with my current story idea. I also have the “staring at self in mirror while brushing teeth” epiphanies, which are fun in their own right.

I have a little time off starting tomorrow. A perfect opportunity to play around with this idea. I was thinking of doing a zero draft by writing it in a “storyteller” format to get the plot down. A fitting method, I think, as it is a story in a tribal setting.

Let’s see what else this box holds.

Making a character generator, or “It’s ALIVE!”

A lot of the ideas I come up with are situational. I suppose it’s a symptom of a mind obsessed with speculation. “What if…a monkey was the only hope for mankind, but he LOST HIS SHOES?” That’s fine. Plot is situation, or a series of situations.

And yet…something troubles me about this. I fear that this approach may lead to weaker characters if I am not careful. Tools to achieve my ends, rather than the fascinating people who should be entertaining the smart, handsome readers that will read my stuff. Puppets, not actors. Mere parodies of life, rather than living souls that leap off the page and make out with you! I’m sure you get the idea.

I’ve seen it happen in my work, I’ll admit. Plot dominating characters, making them do what it requires to run smoothly. Obviously, I don’t want that to happen. Characters are far-and-away my favorite part of fiction. They are why I love to roleplay. I want my characters to be strong, interesting. They should drive the story, not the other way around. I want them to be as alive for my readers as they are for me. If they’re not alive for my readers, I have a problem. If they’re not alive for me, I have a crisis.

So here’s the point of all this rambling. As an experiment, I’m going to focus my future brainstorming efforts on making characters first, then finding the stories they want to tell. Characters first. Kind of a play on words there. But how to brainstorm these characters?

I have my usual method, which I call “heck, I don’t know, it just happens sometimes.” Okay, seriously, I do actively seek inspiration sometimes. I mix random words together to see what they make (I recommend signing up for any word-of-the-days you can find if you’re into this method), or I watch/read/consume some fiction and look for little nuggets I like that I can use as a seed to grow some new ideas of my own. These can still work.

But I have a new device I’m working on. It’s not even a fully functioning prototype yet (waiting for some parts in the mail — how dare they keep a mad wizard/scientist waiting), but it’s getting there. It is my Character Generator. I’ve based it off of the character creation process in your typical tabletop RPG. With an assortment of tables, I can roll dice and use the results to figure out random traits for a character. At first, I planned to make it incredibly detailed and thorough. I had opposing concepts on sliding scales, and I had a lot of them. Every aspect of the character would be decided in the process. No need for interpretation. No need to brainstorm.

Do you see the problem with that? I’ll give you a moment to write your answer in essay form. Okay, never mind, answer time: it took the creativity out of it. Oh sure, I could still use the results to brainstorm story ideas and whatnot. Also, I could tweak the characters afterward. But in my effort to automate the process, I had gone too far. Where was the soul? The art? I decided that I needed something more open-ended so I could be more active in the character creation process. A chaos module installed in my little device to keep things from being too orderly.

I am currently reworking my charts. Each dice roll will now be deciding the answer to a question. These questions and answers will have room for interpretation. Individualization. For example…

What element is associated with your character?

  • Water

  • Earth

  • Fire

  • Air

So now I have to figure out why a character is associated with the element. I still have to use my brain and put the random pieces together. It’s going to be so much fun when I get it finished! At last, the building blocks of life in my capable and responsible hands.

Eh, never mind. I’m going to make monsters.