I’ve fallen behind on the exercises from the course Writing Excuses are running. Fortunately for me, my favourite writing podcast still includes a wildcard episode once a month not related to the course, so by skipping those I’ll hopefully catch up. I know I have quite a few readers who are doing the course, so how are you folks getting on?
This week I’m catching up on the exercise from episode 10.4, a Q&A on generating ideas. The exercise is:
Take one of the ideas you’re excited about, and then audition five different characters for the lead role in that story. Make sure they’re all different from each other.
I’ve chosen a story I’m considering for a future flash Friday, returning to the weird western world of ‘Straight Poker‘. I want to expand on that setting by giving other games magical power. In particular, I thought that the Plains Indian act of ‘counting coup‘ by touching an opponent in battle would make an interesting magical rite.
If I had more time, I’d ‘audition’ characters for this story by writing a chunk of it with each of them. As it is, I’ll stick with discussing their merits as central characters. So…
A young Plains Indian brave: This character has obvious advantages. This could be his first chance to prove himself, counting coup against an opponent either on the battlefield or in some other tense setting. It’s clearly identifiable as a coming of age thing. It’s probably who I would have chosen without this exercise. Maybe a bit too obvious.
A rancher against whom coup is counted during an attack, thus laying a curse on him: Having an outside perspective makes it easier to retain mystery around the magic, but also makes it harder to explore it in a small number of words. Victims make good central characters if they fight back against their status, but can be too passive. Also, I’m not sure I want to fall into the old ‘cowboys good, Indians bad’ trap. And speaking of traps, I realised as I wrote this that I’d automatically made the rancher male, when a woman would be more unusual and therefore interesting. Bad Andrew, perpetuating the patriarchy – go invent a better idea.
An old Plains Indian woman: OK, I’ve swung as far as I could from young, white, male protagonist. And the results raise a lot of interesting questions – why would a woman like this want to count coup? what’s her connection to the magic of that act? how can someone old and frail achieve anything in a battle? It’s such a challenge for her, she’s instantly more interesting as a protagonist.
An escaped slave: Ooh, intriguing. Slavery existed alongside some of the conflicts between settlers and Plains Indians. Maybe this woman has learned that she can gain power over her former master by counting coup. Maybe she’s seeking shelter and acceptance in the tribe. Either way, it mixes up the binary cowboys and Indians dynamic often shown in westerns.
A Chinese railroad worker: If I’ve learnt one thing from Hell on Wheels it’s that driving railroad lines across North America caused territorial conflicts with the Plains Indians. The gangs laying rails from the west coast included a lot of Chinese labour, and that could give a very different perspective on this. There’s a clear source of conflict – the railroad – and an innocent worker just trying to feed his family, now caught up in that conflict. Maybe he knows some magic from his homeland, helping me explore this setting some more.
There we go, five ideas. I’m really glad I tried this exercise, as the first couple of characters are definitely the least interesting, and as I pushed myself to come up with various protagonists I realised that they could show me more about the world the story explores. I should do this more often.
Now I just have to decide which one to use – anybody got any thoughts on who would be best? Which character intrigues you most?
This also reminded of some of the exercises in Edward de Bono’s How to Be More Interesting. Despite its pompous title, and sometimes pompous tone, de Bono’s book has some good exercises for expanding your creative muscles, and might be worth a look if you’re after more exercises like this.
Did any of you do this exercise? How did you get on? And if you just want to try it now, why not share your ideas in the comments? I’d be fascinated to see what you come up with.