NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Five: Pick Your Main Characters

Step 5: Pick your Main Characters

It might seem strange that it took so long to talk about the characters, after all, you already thought up rough characters when you came up with your Core Premise for your story. However, until everything from Genre to Theme was in place, you weren’t ready to actually sit down and make your lead characters because the characters of a story are influenced by all of the things that we’ve covered so far, and each step has made the characters you will create more focused and solid in your imagination. This is important because characters aren’t real people but are parts of the story which are guided by the premise, ideas and theme like everything else.

Let’s look at the four types of characters you find in every story.

Main Characters

The most important character in your story is your main character (sometimes also called the hero or protagonist), who is going to be the heart of your story. They’re the viewpoint from which the story is being told, and the reader’s guide to the events which play out.

Main characters are also the trickiest part of the story to create, because they have to achieve the right balance of being unique while still being relatable to the audience. If the main character is too unique, the audience won’t be able to connect and empathize with them because they’re too different, but if the main character isn’t at least a little unique they won’t stand out in the minds of the reader.

The simplest solution to this is not to detail your main character too much, but instead make them special in a few important ways while leaving the rest unknown or vague so the audience’s own imaginations can fill in the details and make them their own. This is one of the key skills of storytelling- giving the audience just enough to make a picture in their minds, but not filling in the details so that each person can make their own mental picture.

With this in mind, here’s the top ten things to know about your story’s main character:

  1. Basic biographical information– age, sex, height, weight, hair color(s), job, family members, close friends, education, skills, work history, hobbies.
  2. Which of the Big Five Personality Traits is their weakest and which one is their strongest? Are they an Extrovert who likes spending time with other people? Do they care about other people? Are they well organized? Are they emotional? Are they open to new experiences and ideas?
  3. What are they best at and what are they worst at? Characters are often defined by their flaws more than their strengths, so make sure your character is bad at something for everything they’re good at.
  4. What are the first things people notice about this character when they meet them? Appearance, style of dress, style of grooming, manner of speech, body language, etc.
  5. What are two Paradoxes about them? This is a fast way to make characters unique in the minds of readers- give them two things that seem to contradict each other in the minds of the reader. This is an easy way to add depth and interest to the character. For example, they’re big and strong but very timid, they’re a leader who is afraid of talking to people, they dress very conservatively but wear a brightly colored watch, or their personality changes when they’re in a different environment. (Home/work/school.)
  6. What is going to make the audience like or dislike this character? What about this character is going to make the audience connect with and care about the character? Or, on the other hand, what will make them dislike and reject the character? How will you make that connection with the audience?
  7. What is their overall life goal? What, if anything, do they want to achieve in their life? What would be a perfect life for this character? What would they be willing to do to get it?
  8. What is their goal in this story? A character’s story goals generally come down to one of three things: attain, maintain, or lose. They want to get something they don’t have. They want to keep something they’ve got. Or, they want to get rid of something they have. This isn’t just physical things, it can be anything- objects, people, habits, money, knowledge, love, courage, safety, security, freedom, spirituality, and so on.
  9. What is their motivation in this story? Why are they trying to achieve the goal in the story? What reasons are getting them off the couch and keeping them from running away? Why do they endure or try to escape? What keeps them from giving up and just being a victim?
  10. How does this character connect with the main theme of the story? This is last, but one of the most important things to know- how does the main character reflect the theme of the story? Are they a weak person who learns to be strong? Are they a strong person who inspires others to be strong? Are they are trying to change the world or restore the peace? How does the character represent the life lesson the writer wants the reader to know?

You should be able to fit the above on one or two pages of notes at most, anything more and the character is probably getting too detailed and may be harder for the audience to connect to. If you’re an artist, feel free to sketch the character as well and think about their emotions and how they’d react to things. Other details will probably appear as you tell the character’s story, and that’s fine, just add them to the list as they come up.

One final thought on main characters- like all characters in a story, the main character is a reflection of the writer, but only a reflection. They are not you, and you shouldn’t think of them as being you, but more like your children who you are going to horribly abuse to teach a lesson to. Don’t be afraid to let them grow and become different and unique people if that’s what the story calls for, and let them have their own ways of doing things. When you first start writing, it’s fine for your main characters to act and think like you do, but it’s important over time to learn to separate yourself from them and let them have their own voice. It’s something that will usually happen naturally as you write, but it’s important to be aware of because some people have trouble separating themselves from their characters, and this can lead to making Mary-Sues if you’re not careful.


The second most important character in a story is the opponent, also called the antagonist, the rival, or sometimes the villain. In many ways, the term Opponent is better than those terms, however, because almost all of them make you think of a character who is evil or hates the main character. While this is often true, this isn’t true all of the time, and in fact you can have an Opponent who has no feelings about the main character at all, or is actually the main character’s best friend or even lover. The single thing that makes an Opponent an Opponent is that they’re standing in the way of the main character trying to achieve their goal. As long as a thinking character is preventing the main character from reaching their goal for whatever reason, they’re an opponent.

So, for example, if a young child wants their mother to buy them a toy, the mother is the child’s opponent. If a character is trying to survive a night in a haunted house, the resident ghosts or monsters trying to kill him are his opponents. If a woman is trying to convince a politician to give up a proposed new law, the politician is the woman’s opponent. If a man is trying to convince a reluctant girlfriend to marry him, she is his opponent.

A story can also have different kinds of Opponents- usually there is a Main Opponent, who is the one that the character must overcome to achieve their main story goal. However, there can also be Minor Opponents, who stand in the way of the character achieving their story goal, but affect the character’s story in less important ways. For example, if a teen character was trying to sneak out of school, the school security guard might be their main opponent, but they’d also have to convince their teacher to let them out of class (minor opponent) and bribe a rival student not to turn them in (minor opponent). The story ends when they get past the security guard and achieve their goal of escaping the school, but they had to deal with the other opponents too.

The other important thing to know about Opponents is that they too reflect the theme of the story, and often represent the opposing ideas that someone who doesn’t agree with the theme would say. So, for example, if a story was about a character learning to be brave, their opponents would all represent reasons for the character not to be brave and the character’s own fears. If a story is about how slavery is bad and corrupts people, the main opponent will be someone who thinks slavery is the natural order of things and important to society. By taking the opposite position on the theme of the story, the opponent is naturally drawn into conflict with the main character and vice-versa, creating at battle which reflects the theme of the story.

With this in mind, creating a main opponent follows the same process as creating the main character. Use the above list of the top 10 things you need to know about the main character to build the main opponent as well. For Minor Opponents, you might not want to use the full list, but just focus on numbers 1,4,5,6,8,10. You really just need to know how they connect with theme, how they look, and what they’re trying to do in the story.

Also remember that if you want the audience to hate or dislike the opponent, make sure as quickly as possible after the opponent is introduced you have them do or say something that the audience won’t like. It’s very common for movie villains to kill someone or do something bad in their first scene for this reason- it tells the audience that this person is evil and a threat to the hero. If you want the audience to be more sympathetic toward the opponent, have them do something disagreeable, but understandable in their first appearance. In other words, show them doing the right thing in the wrong way, or do both right and wrong things, which makes the audience curious about them as a person as it shows there is complexity or depth there. In any case, always introduce your main opponent in the story as early as possible so the audience knows what kind of situation the main character is facing.

One final note- There can be stories where there are no opponents of any kind, and the character is trying to overcome something to reach their goal instead of trying to overcome someone. For example, a story where a character is trying to survive in the arctic, or earn money to pay for a gift. In these stories, usually the actual opponent is the setting or world the character lives in, or some part of it. Sometimes the character themselves can even be their own opponent, in which case the character must overcome some personal weakness or flaw to achieve their goal. As a rule, the easiest stories to write, however, are the ones where there is a thinking opponent as it gives the main character someone else to interact with and creates more drama.

Supporting Characters

Supporting characters are made much the same as minor antagonists, whether they’re the mentors, friends, parents, lovers, co-workers, or any other kind of character that round out the main character’s life. You just need to tell the audience their names, what they look like, give them a distinctive feature and something to do in the story, and you’re good to go.

Generally supporting characters tend to play one or more of six roles in a story:

  1. Ally– This is usually the “best friend” character who is there to cheer the character on and keep them in the story. They get the character to talk so that the audience can hear the character’s thoughts and they often help to direct the character to think in ways connected to the story by asking questions.
  2. Motivator– This is a character who helps to keep the story going by motivating the character to act and pursue their goal. Sometimes this character IS the goal, in the case of the Love Interest, and sometimes they’re a boss who tells the character what to do, or a child who gets kidnapped by a monster the character has to rescue. Whoever they are, they help to make the story move and keep the main character from sitting on their butt.
  3. Resource– This is the character that provides the main character (and audience) with the information they need to understand what’s happening and keep the main character in play. It can also be the character that provides the main character with the things they need in the story to do what they need to do. This can be the teacher or mentor, the brainy best friend, the starship’s science officer, the gunsmith, the gadgeteer or the mysterious supplier of magical spells. Someone has to supply the character with what they need and need to know.
  4. Innocent– This is a character that the main character needs to teach something to, or help to develop in some way. Most often this type of character pops up in stories where the main character is a larger than life figure who changes the world by showing the right way to live and exemplifying the theme of the story. In those stories, the Innocent is the one learning the truth of the story’s theme from the main character, who already knows and lives that truth every day. Sometimes this character acts as a motivator, but they’re more than that, they’re often the audience’s surrogate when the main character is too unique to be relatable.
  5. Catalyst– This character serves to change the main character’s life by becoming part of it. This can be the new kid in class, a new love, a person in need of help or anyone else who transforms the main character’s life just by walking in the door. They’re the cause of the character’s world turning upside down, and usually enter the story right at the beginning to kick the whole thing off. Sometimes they are the motivator of the story, but sometimes they’re the spark that sets off an inferno, either way, they’re bringers of change.
  6. Comic Relief– If a story is dark or tense, sometimes there needs to be a little sunshine and lighter moments to help balance things out. In that case, someone has to be there to make the jokes that lets the tension drop a bit or make the characters (and audience) chuckle. Serious main characters need someone who isn’t so serious to balance them out and keep the tone lighter, and sometimes the funny character delivers the lessons of the story in the most entertaining ways.

Often supporting characters play more than one of these roles, and one person can even be all six of the roles in a story! These roles can also shift around between stories as characters change and develop between multiple stories or books, but whatever roles the characters play they should stick with those roles within a single story once they’re introduced to the audience as playing that role. If they do change roles, there should be a good reason for it within the story and it shouldn’t happen out of the blue. (The best friend shouldn’t suddenly turn out to be rich at the end of the story when the character needs money unless it was hinted at or established earlier in the story.)

Background Characters

These are the characters that fill out the rest of the story but who don’t play any of the above roles except maybe for a scene or two at most. These the nameless family members and classmates, the redshirts, the merchants, the tavern servers, the fellow pilots and the collateral damage victims. The people who might have a few colorful lines, or are there to give a limited viewpoint or perspective on a scene or event that can’t be given another way. The Extras, the NPCs, the… well, you get the point.

Generally, there’s not much to say about these folks, except that the writer should remember that they serve as representatives of the setting. They are the living embodiments of the world the character lives in, and so every one of them tells the audience lots of information about the world and the major characters’ place in it. They will often set the tone of the story, act as minor foils to let us know more about the main characters As someone once said, “your true nature comes out when you’re with the people you don’t have to be nice to.”), and add color to the world they inhabit.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s generally best to limit these characters to archetypes and not to spend too much time of them. If they’re a police officer, then have them act like a typical police officer for their situation, and don’t slow the story down telling the audience their life story. That is, unless they’re a corrupt police officer and are there to show that the police in that setting are corrupt, in which case they should act like a corrupt police officer to show the audience the current nature of the organization they represent. Only give them the detail they need to fill their roles, and then let them do their jobs.

Cast Size

As a general rule of thumb, you should have the minimum number of characters in a story that you can get away with for the story you want to tell. Every character should be there for a reason, and look for opportunities to combine two or more characters into a single person to avoid larger casts. There are two very good reasons for this: 1) the more names, the more chances there are for the audience to get confused, and 2) the more active characters with goals, the longer the story is going to need to be to develop them as characters and tell their stories.

Try to keep all supporting casts under five characters (including opponents) per main character per story, not including characters who only appear in a single scene or are background characters. This will keep you from having too many characters to deal with and running into trouble trying to keep track of them all. It is generally recommended that most short stories have at least a main character, a single ally (for the main character to talk to), and a single opponent.


Your Task

So, with all this in mind, fill out the worksheet profile for your main character, main opponent, and then any other characters that are important to the story in as much detail as needed. Now let’s brainstorm some scenes and situations!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Four: Picking a Theme

Step 4: Picking a Theme

While an interesting main plot or idea for the story is going to make it interesting to read, the truth is if you want your story to really have any depth, or be meaningful to readers, you’re going to need to find a theme for it as well. The theme, as your English teacher probably told your class more than once, is the message or lesson about life that the author is trying to communicate to the reader. It’s the “point” of the story, and works hand in hand with the Core Premise to guide the story toward a natural ending. This is another area where you are customizing a story and making it your own, and is an important one which shouldn’t be skipped.

As your teacher might also have taught you, there are two parts to theme: Thematic Idea and Thematic Statement. Simply put, the Thematic Idea is the general theme of the story (War, Love, Greed, etc) and the Thematic Statement is the actual point the writer is trying to make about the Thematic Idea. (War is bad, Love is bittersweet, Greed drives civilization, etc)

Your job, then, is to match your Core Premise up with a Thematic Statement that will bring out the best in your story and characters while still reflecting your own ideas.

So, first, take a look at your Core Premise again and think about possible themes it naturally suggests. If you can’t think of any, then take a look at this list of common themes and see if any of them will fit the story you’re trying to tell.

For example, let’s look at one of the Core Premises from the previous step:

A mousy college student working in a used bookstore must find a mysterious book when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits that will escape the store at nightfall.

What are the possible themes that could work with this story?

  • Finding confidence in yourself.
  • The power of love.
  • The power of knowledge.
  • The power of friendship.
  • Not giving up.
  • Sins of the past returning.

Now, a story can have more than one theme, but it really should only have one main theme (thematic statement), which is the theme which truly drives the story forward. This idea is the lesson the writer is trying to teach the reader, and it will have a big influence on both the beginning of the story and its ending. Thus, in most stories, the character will start the story with their life in a bad place because they haven’t accepted the truth which is behind theme of the story.

For example, if the main theme of the above story is “you need to have confidence to succeed,” then the main character will start the story with no confidence and her life will be hard because of it. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then the main character’s secret love for her co-worker will be making her miserable and causing problems in her life and relationships. Or, if the story is about “the sins of the past”, the bookstore will be a gloomy place with few customers because a strange dark feeling hangs over the place which is preventing the people there from being truly happy.

Then, the theme of a story will also tell you how it should end because the end of the story has to be one which reinforces that theme or idea and proves it’s the right one. This gives the lesson the writer is trying to prove, and only by accepting that “truth” can the main character solve the problem established in the beginning and find a happy new life.

Thus, if the main theme of the story is “you need to have confidence to succeed”, then it will be about a character who is forced to find confidence to save the day and win. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then it will be about how the main character’s secret love for her co-worker is the key to defeating the evil spirits and her confession of love solves the problem (and her own life issues). Or, if the story is about the “sins of the past,” then the story might play as a mystery where the main character needs to learn whose misdeeds caused this situation, and finding justice will stop the curse and leave the bookstore a happier place.

So, as you can see, the theme of a story can have a strong influence over its plot, setting, characters, presentation, tone and so much more. In fact, it is often the glue which holds the story together, and should be carefully considered. However, if you find yourself getting stuck on trying to come up with a theme (a common problem for writers) then the most likely reason is you’re making your life harder than you need to. Most genres (and subgenres) have classic themes that are already attached to them and commonly used, and all you need to do is go look carefully back at the themes of some of your favorite stories to find one which interests you or moves you. Then, if you want to be a little different, try making a small twist on that usual theme.

For example, in a Romance story, a common theme is “A woman needs a strong man, and a man needs a smart woman.” But, you might take that theme and play with it, making it into something like “Man needs a strong woman, and a woman needs a smart man.” This could produce a different story than the usual, and could provide the audience with something they don’t see very often.

The important part is taking a general thematic idea (like friendship, peace, revenge) and then turning it into a clear thematic statement which gives your story a direction and goal. Just leaving it as a general idea is asking for trouble and a lot of rewriting down the line as you try to find a theme from a direction-less story.

Once you have your story’s clear main theme, write it down on your worksheet and let’s start developing some characters!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Three: Picking a Core Premise

Step 3: Picking a Core Premise

Your next task is to pick a Core Premise for your story based on the pile of ideas you’ve just put together in the previous step. This step is extremely important and shouldn’t be skipped, because your Core Premise is the central idea of your story and the seed from which the rest of the story will grow. Without it, you’ll quickly run into problems because you won’t know the story you’re trying to tell, and with it, you have a guiding star leading the way to the end!

For finding your Core Premise, you’re going to use a very basic technique that writers of movies have been using for a long time. In the movie business, writers often approach producers and directors with ideas for films, but they use a very simple structured version of their idea to get maximum effect and make the producers interested. If they can use it to sell a movie, you can use it to sell a book to yourself- so let’s get started!

A great Core Premise needs to describe most of the following things:

  1. The main character’s role or job. (Don’t use a name, just their role for now.)
  2. One or two adjectives about the main character. (to give them personality)
  3. Anything that’s important to know about the setting or setup for the story.
  4. What the main character’s clear goal is.
  5. The antagonist, opposition or challenge they face. (Also no names, use roles instead.)
  6. One or two adjectives about the antagonist. (to make them interesting)
  7. A hint of what will happen if the protagonist loses, or the stakes involved. (to add drama)

These can be presented in any order, but usually go in the above order, and will produce one or two sentences that look like this:

A mousy college student (adjective, who) working in a used bookstore (setting) must find a mysterious book (goal) when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits (adjective, opposition) that will escape the store at nightfall. (stakes)

An overworked executive assistant (adjective, who) at a large corporation (setting) must choose between her work and her family (goal) when a long-time rival (adjective, opposition) threatens to steal a big project (stakes) during a family crisis.

A high school student (adjective, who) must find a way to tell her long-time crush her true feelings (adjective, challenge) before she moves to a new city and they lose touch forever. (stakes)

It’s actually pretty easy and fun once you get the hang of it!

Try using the ideas you brainstormed in Step 2 to come up with a Core Premise that follows the rules above. You don’t need to use all the information you came up with, just the main ideas. Also, don’t be afraid to try different versions of the premise with different details until you get one that you like.

Once you’ve turned at least two of your story ideas into Core Premises, then you should look at each one of them and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this story idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  2. Is this story going to make your readers feel something?
  3. Is this story going to be one you think will interest your target audience?

If one of them gets three answers of “yes!”, then that’s the story you need to write. If more than one gets a “yes”, then you’ll need to decide which one gets the stronger responses and write that one first. If none of them get a “yes” for all three questions, then you need to go back to Step 2 and brainstorm some new ideas and turn those into Premises that will work for you.

Assuming you have at least one core premise you’re now excited to write, it’s time to move on to Picking the Theme of the story!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Two: Brainstorming Ideas

Step 2: Brainstorming Ideas

Once you’ve picked your genre, the next step is customizing this story so it’s yours.

How do you do this? It’s pretty simple- the same way every single writer before you made their stories original to them- they drew from their own life experience.

Now, you might be thinking, “Life experience? My life is boring! Nobody wants to read about me!”

But, the truth is, everyone’s life is unique and interesting to someone else. The more different their life is from yours, the more interesting yours becomes. Yes, your life might seem boring to you, or your siblings, but how many of your friends have different lives than you? Have you ever thought your friends’ lives were more interesting than yours? Of course you have! And they live near you! What about someone who lives far away? What will they think of your life?

So, you definitely have something unique to offer- your own life perspective. Nobody else is you, and nobody has had quite the experiences you have had. The trick is, you just need to combine those experiences with your genre of choice.

Let’s do it.

There are many brainstorming techniques you can use to add some of your own originality to your story, however one of the best is the The Paradox Technique (first suggested by UK Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock). It’s a great technique that will work for almost any genre, and will really loosen up your creative juices.

Here’s how it works.

Take out a piece of paper (or open up a word processing document) and set a timer for ten minutes (or more, depends on you). Then, with your genre in mind, start to write down as many paradoxes (things that don’t fit together) as you can in that time. The key here is to write down descriptive adjectives and then pair them with nouns (people, places, things) and verbs (action words) that they don’t normally go with.

So, let’s say you were writing a office romance story, you might end up with some entries that look like this:

  • Basement penthouse.
  • Dry coffee pot.
  • Pageless book.
  • Useless computer.
  • Tasty policeman.
  • Ink Pencil.
  • Blind glasses.
  • Pickle wine.
  • Wheel-less car.
  • Singing plant.
  • Hole filled cups.
  • And so on…

Keep going until the time is up, and push the ideas as far as you can go, no matter how strange they may seem. The idea here is to tap into your subconscious and creative side. Then, when you’re done, look back at the list and the circle the ones which strike you as interesting or give you other ideas. Often a bunch of these seemingly strange ideas can be combined to produce scenes or story elements which make a different and unique story. While “pickle wine” might not factor into an office romance story well, if we combine “wheel-less car” and “tasty policeman” we might get an office worker who comes out to find her car’s wheels have been stolen and ends up in a romance with the police officer who comes to investigate. Or maybe there’s a practical joke war going on in the office, and some of the contradictions like “singing plants”, “pageless books”, and that weird “pickle wine” might start to make sense!

You can probably start to see now how useful and creative this technique can be, so try it yourself! Don’t forget to include things like people, jobs, machines, and other things that you’d find in the environment of your chosen genre story. And, if you don’t know the environment, then add those to the list too! (“Dry swamp”, “Bending skyscraper”, “Sweet Street”, etc.)

One other method, if the Paradox Technique doesn’t work for you, is to create three columns on a sheet of paper. The first one is descriptive adjectives and adverbs, the second one is nouns, and the third one is verbs. Then take five to ten minutes to fill the three lists with as many words as you can that you associate with your chosen genre or story idea (if you have one already). After you’ve filled them out, go back and try combining the words you’ve listed in different ways, and see if any of those combinations spark ideas that you can develop into a story or parts of a story.

So, it might look something like this for a Space Opera story:


  • Cold
  • Burning
  • Steely
  • Sweet
  • Rough
  • Wooden
  • Alien


  • Space Station
  • Starship
  • Gun
  • Tentacle
  • Plastic
  • Goggles
  • Flying Belt


  • Fight
  • Punch
  • Shoot
  • Kick
  • Jump
  • Toss
  • Embrace
  • Lose

Then you would start combining the words in different ways (they look better side by side) and seeing if any interesting combinations jumped out at you like “Alien Gun”, “Steely Goggles”, “Wooden Starship”, or “Burning Flying Belt”. From those we could get a story about a space ranger whose trademark is wearing steely mirrorshade goggles and who finds a strange gun aboard an alien starship made of wood and must fight against raiders wearing flying belts who are after the alien ship. Or something like that! Maybe you see a different story in those words, and that’s fine, the key is to just dump anything that comes to your head out onto the page and start playing with the lists to see what interesting combinations strike your fancy!

Whatever technique you use, your goal is to come up with at least two different ideas for stories you can write based on your genre and add them to the worksheet. If you can come up with more, that’s even better, because now you need to figure out what your story’s Core Premise is!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part One: Pick A Genre

The following multi-part series will offer a step-by-step quick-start guide to putting together a story. Even if you have little to no experience with writing, this guide will give you the basic structure and core ideas you need to tell the story you want. Of course, you will still need to be able to write proper sentences and use grammar on your own to make this work, but if you can, then you can tell a story. It will only take practice, time, and not giving up.

In the words of Robert Heinlein- “You must write, and you must finish what you write.”

If you do these two things, you will be a writer.

So let’s get you ready to write!

Once upon a time, there were no genres. There were just stories and ideas, but over time storytellers figured out worked and what didn’t work. Audiences too, decided what they liked and didn’t like in their stories. When these two things met, the concept of “genres” was born.

Genres are basically pre-set collections of ideas about a story with a particular goal- make the audience feel something. In a comedy, the audience wants to laugh, in a horror movie they want to be scared, in an adventure movie they want to feel a sense of wonder. Of course, they are more than that too, because over time standard ways of telling these stories that the audiences liked appeared. These ways of telling stories became so specific they became sub-genres (under genres) which not only follow the rules of the main genre, but also have another set of rules that go with them.

You might unhappily think, “Great! So I’ve got to go learn all these rules now?” But actually, it’s not a bad thing at all! This is really is great for you as a writer because it means once you pick your genre and sub-genre, a lot of your work is already done for you! You know what emotion you want the audience to feel, and you know what the audience is going to expect from you in the story. Your job is really only customizing this story so it’s your original take on what’s already laid out. It’s a little bit like buying a car from the lot, and then customizing it to make it your own. It saves you building the whole car, and you can just focus on the bits that you feel like changing.

In any case, Step 1 of putting together your story is to pick your genre and (if you choose) subgenre. You can find a list of all the different genres and subgenres here and here. There are quite a few of them, so here are a few rules to help you decide which one to pick for your story:

  • Always pick from the ones you are most familiar with, especially if you’re a beginning writer. It saves you a lot of time doing research (ie reading and watching) because you already know most of the main ideas and even the genres and sub-genres. Trying new genres is a sure way to get yourself into trouble, because you won’t know what cliches to stick with and which ones to avoid. There is an old writer’s saying: “Write what you know.” And that applies double here!
  • Pick from the ones that excite you the most. If you’re passionate about your topic, it will show, and it will get you thinking of new ideas faster than anything.
  • Make sure you understand what your audience wants from that genre and sub-genre.Pick a genre where you understand what your audience enjoys about that genre, and what they want to get from it. If you give them strawberry flavor when they ordered chocolate, they won’t be happy customers.
  • Don’t mix genres unless you know both of them well. It can be tempting to try to create new genre mashups, but unless you know the “rules” of both genres well, it can also turn into a mess.
  • Sub-genres are your friend. The main genres are pretty broad, so narrowing things down to a particular sub-genre and using the rules of that sub-genre can make your life a lot easier. If you want to explore a sub-genre, it also narrows your research materials down to just those particular stories.

When you’ve picked your genre and sub-genre, add them to your worksheet and move on to the next step: Brainstorming Ideas!

The S.P.I.N.E. of Good Comics

Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics that make up a good story, at least from the point of view of the audience, and how the writer has five key things they offer their audience in a story, which can be summed up by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

  • Skills – the audience learns how to do something.
  • Perspective – the audience gains a new view of the world or has their current one confirmed.
  • Information – the audience gains information.
  • Novelty – the audience is presented with something they haven’t seen/known before.
  • Emotion – the audience is made to feel some emotion.

Today, I want to look at a more specific application- how these characteristics are what helps to make comic books interesting to read, and can make your comics or manga even better.

First, it’s important to understand that those five things apply on both the macro and micro level, so for example, a book might be a historical adventure set in Medieval England, and thus taken as a whole story (the macro level) it gives the reader Information (about the culture and history of England). However, even on the level of individual sentences (the micro level) each sentence in the book might be providing Information about people, dates, food, customs, events, clothing, or any other number of historical details. Taken as a whole, they inform the reader about the greater history and culture, but as usual, that information is actually presented in a bunch of tiny pieces that make up the whole.

So then, understanding that the S.P.I.N.E. covers everything big and small in a story, it should come as no surprise that they also cover the pages of a comic book- which is where I want to focus today.

In short, through the writing and art every single page of a comic book should offer at least one of those five key things to the reader. Preferably, it should offer more than one, but the minimum should be one thing if the writer/artist wants to keep the audience interested. In fact, the really skilled comic creators make almost every panel contain one of those elements.

Let’s look at some pages from the hit manga Dr. Stone by Inagaki Riichiro and BOICHI. (Remember that manga is read right to left, the opposite of American comics.)

(You can keep reading the story here to find out what happens next.)

As you can see, each of these pages (and panels) is packed full of the key five elements, as the writer and artist team make use of them to keep the reader interested and push the entertainment quality of the comic to new heights.

If you want to learn a lot about comic creation and writing, do what I did with the sample pages and analyze your favorite comics panel by panel and page by page. You’ll be surprised just how much information the best creators are packing in there in even the simplest looking of pages that take you seconds to read. (But filled with elements which your brain catches almost all of.)

Also, as you’re planning your next comic, or revising your current one, always be looking for the S.P.I.N.E. elements and chances to add them to your comic- in dialog, captions, panels, and pages.  It’s this focus on the reader, and these elements that have made manga a worldwide success, and which comic creators around the world (knowingly and unknowingly) have been using to produce works of comic art.


The Task Story – A “New” Genre that’s

One of the more fascinating things about the internet is its ability to highlight so many different facets of human nature. The internet has brought out the best of humanity in things like charity drives and campaigns for positive change around the world, and it’s brought out the worst of humanity as well, in numerous sites filled with anger, hate, deception and depravity where you can find out worst sides on display.

It would be too far to say the internet has made us more human, but it has definitely shown us the true nature of what it is to be human in many ways.

One of those ways is how it’s changing fiction.

While in the past, genre fiction (action, crime, romance, erotica, horror, etc) was something that people considered a guilty pleasure and tended to read in the privacy of their own homes where nobody would judge them for not reading “real” books, now in the Kindle ebook age, genre fiction has exploded beyond anyone’s expectations. In fact, when it comes to ebooks, genre fiction tends to be closer to the rule than the exception, far outselling what it did in print, and leaving “literature” in the dusty bookshelves.

Nowhere is this more true than in the romance genre, which was already the world’s best selling genre of fiction, but thanks to ebooks women have been consuming romance in such large quantities that they have been destroying discount ebook and audiobook sites. Sites like Scribd which have tried to become Netflix for eBooks have found that romance readers have overwhelmed their budgets and killed many one flat fee schemes for digital media.

There’s something about romance fiction that women can’t seem to get enough of, just ask any bookseller who was around when Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were at their peak, something which appeals to the most basic parts of the female brain.

Not that this is a surprise to anyone who has looked at neuroscience research, or psychology, or sociology, or…dare I say it…biology. Test after test, study after study come back with one simple truth, the truth we all know but often aren’t supposed to say in our hyper-egalitarian age…

Men and women are different.

Not better, or worse, just different.

And, one of the ways that your average man, and your average woman (notice, I’m not saying all men or all women, just the average one) are different is that while women are oriented towards people, men are oriented towards things. Or, to be more specific for what we’re talking about here- woman are relationship-oriented while men are goal-oriented. This is why women’s communication centres are larger than men’s, and men’s centers for motor and spacial skills are more developed than women’s. Men’s brains are literally optimized for dealing with tasks, while women’s brains are optimized for dealing with other people.

Thus, women are drawn to romance and dramas like bees to pollen, because these stories stimulate their natural desires and inclinations. Similarly, men avoid romance and dramas like the plague, but give them a good goal-oriented quest story or one built around plot and action, and they’re ready to line up just like the ladies.

In both cases, these stories stimulate the subconscious desires that come with being a member of each sex, and appeal to those same needs. Stories give us information we need to survive and navigate in our respective domains, and so men are drawn to stories about physical conflict and challenges, and women are drawn to stories about social conflict and challenges. Our brains are trying to learn more about the world from these stories, and we’re drawn to stories that seem to give us the things we need.

Thus, as a consequence of all this, women are drawn to romance because it appeals to their subconscious need to further understand human interaction and find the optimal partner and father for their children.

But, what of men?

As noted above, men are thing and goal oriented. They are designed to find, seek, hunt, build, fight and create- all things which are connected to the world around them. The most popular male genres like Action, Fantasy, and Westerns are, and always have been built around those broad actions- about a man who reaches out and tames the world around him.

Consequently, many have equated the Action genre (in its many forms dating back to Beowulf, to the pulp fiction of the 20th century, superhero comics, action movies, etc) as being the male version of the romance novel. However, with the rise of ebooks, we’re now seeing a new genre emerge, one which might more literally be called the male equivalent of the romance novel because it goes to the same parts of the male brain the romance novel does in the female brain-

The Task Story.

Simply put, the Task Story is a story which is there to stimulate the unconscious male desire to achieve goals and tasks. It’s targeting the same parts of the male psyche that are the reason why most men have “hobbies” or “projects” that they feel compelled to do or drawn to. They are no-nonsense stories built very simply around the structure of a character with a very clear task to perform, and watching the character attempt to the best of their ability to perform that task. (In the past I have called these Creative Procedurals, but I’m starting to think simply calling them Task Stories might be a better choice.)

A Task Story almost everyone reading this is already familiar with that came out recently a book and movie is The Martian. In that story, an astronaut is stranded on Mars, left behind after an accident, and must figure out how to use the tools and knowledge of science to survive until help can come in the distant future. The structure of the story is very very simple, a man and a task, and that forms the whole backbone of the story, with no need for drama or other interactions except as it relates to the task he’s trying to perform. (Of course, this is just an updated version of Robinson Crusoe, another Task Story of the same line.)

Want more examples?

The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell- a man wakes up from suspended animation and through a series of circumstances ends up in command of a fleet deep in enemy space trying to get home. It’s eleven books or riveting sci-fi action, 90% of which are set on three rooms in the same battlecruiser, and most of that with him in the command seat of the ship. What drama there is basically just padding for the sake of drama (and at times nails-on-a-chalkboard bad), but the heart of the book is just a man trying to complete the “simple” but extremely hard task of getting the ships home.

A final Sci-fi example which has blown up recently is the incredible We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor, which is about a man named Bob Johansen from present day whose memories are used as the template for a future space probe going out into the stars. The probe can build copies of itself with the materials it finds in other star systems, which results in legion of “Bobs” traveling, exploring and fighting to save humanity from extinction. However, through it all, it’s just about the Bobs trying to accomplish the very hard tasks of saving humanity, one step at a time.

Not that Task Stories have to be science fiction, the entire modern-set Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is nothing but Reacher going from one task to the next, each of them with him applying his massive skill set to dealing with the situation involved. This too has spawned countless clones, because there’s something about this simple, solid narrative structure of “a man with a problem to solve” that appeals to the male brain and makes for compelling fiction when done right.

Another place to find this on display which the internet has really highlighted is Webfiction, where you need look no farther than the newest exploding subgenre litRPGs to find a whole genre almost entirely written around Task Stories. In the vast majority of these stories, a character with a greater goal is dumped into a virtual video game world and then proceeds to work their way up the system to achieve that goal. The progenitor of these is Legendary Moonlight Sculptor from South Korea, but most people are more familiar with names like Ready Player One and Sword Art Online.

Not that it’s just litRPGs, Asian webfiction for men is currently dominated by a variety of Task Stories. From the Chinese Xianxia “Cultivator” stories where a young man goes from being a nobody to (literally) a god, to the Japanese Isekai stories where a young man (or occasionally woman, but they’re still mostly written and read by men) gets dumped in a fantasy world and must complete a quest of some kind.

Sites hosting English fan translations of these stories, like Wuxiaworld and Gravity Tales are getting tens of millions of hits by readers…a day. And, these English language numbers are tiny compared to the readerships they have in their native lands.

And, almost all of these stories are super-simple in structure- the character has a task and they go through the steps needed to complete that task, meeting challenges along the way. Drama and romance are secondary things at best, because that isn’t the point, the point is a character trying to accomplish a goal and watching they work their way through that procedure. Other characters are only there to help the main character in their goal, either by providing resources or motivating them in some way (which is usually the female love interest’s sole purpose in most of these stories, if there’s one at all).

Compare this with the traditional Hollywood three-act-structure we see most narratives based on, and you’ll see the difference. In those stories, the character goes on a journey of personal change, where they try to accomplish some goal, discover flaws within themselves preventing them from achieving that goal, and then accomplishes the goal having overcome those personal flaws. The focus in those stories, which are designed to achieve a balance between male and female interests, are mostly on the character’s personal inner journey and change, linking it with external events.

However, with the Task Story, there doesn’t need to be an inner conflict or journey of any kind. The point of the story isn’t how the character is changing, but how the character changes the world around them. The character is just there to serve as a viewpoint as they go through the task, and we the audience experience the task progression through their eyes.

So, how does the story maintain interest without the interpersonal drama?

Well, going back to my article on The S.P.I.N.E. of Every Good Story, the story simply focuses on other things from the options of Skills, Perception, Information, Novelty and Emotion. Generally, Task Stories tend to focus on Skills, Information and Novelty. Jack Reacher is a perfect example of this, reading a Jack Reacher novel is an exercise in learning about guns, unarmed combat, infiltration techniques, geography, geology, psychology, and a whole pile of other information. The author is constantly filling each chapter with interesting (and always relevant) bits of information about the world around Reacher, and you can learn a lot from any of his adventures while being surprised.

This desire to learn is stronger than most people realize, and can sustain interest in a story as it goes. Just look at the 7.6 million subscribers to the Primitive Technology YouTube channel, a channel which is just about a single man trying to recreate various pieces of technology from the ground up. It’s a literal example of a non-fiction Task Story in action, and it’s wildly popular.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be personal transformation or things like deep introspection in a Task Story, but it isn’t the point, so those things are often left off the table. In many cases, deep questions about philosophy would get in the way, so they’re just ignored in favor of presenting big challenges for the main character to overcome. These are truly external stories, and internal drama would mostly go against the point.

Whether these types of stories will continue to flourish is anyone’s guess, but considering that they’re also some of the oldest kinds of stories (Jason and the Argonauts anyone?), they’re definitely not going away, and their appeal only seems to be rising with the explosion of litRPG stories and Light Novels. They’re also a type of story that favors younger authors, who may not have a strong grasp of drama, but know how to write a simple story about a man (or woman) on a mission. If they can do it well, they can find an audience, and work their way to the top.

Hey, that sounds like a fun Task!

Have fun!


Stories Made Simple Ep.3 – The Spine of Action (Part 1)

In this episode, Rob begins delving into the Spine of Action, and how understanding it can make your stories better.

Stories Made Simple Ep.2- The 5WH Method

In this episode, Rob discusses the importance of details in stories, what details writers need to include, and how many.

Stories Made Simple- Episode 1: What are Stories?

I’ve been wanting to do a few YouTube videos about storytelling for a while, and finally finished the first one. Let me know what you think!