Category Archives: Writing Synopses

Character Development Tricks!

As trite as it might seem, ask yourself “What would a story be without characters?” The answer can help you get a grip on exactly what characters really do in a story, and therefore how to build them effectively.

Although it is possible to write without the use of characters, it is not easy. Characters represent our drives, our essential human qualities. So a story without characters would be a story that did not describe or explore anything that might be considered a motivation. For most writers, such a story would not provide the opportunity to completely fulfill their own motivations for writing.

For example, we might consider the following poem:

Rain, rain, go away.

Come again another day.

Are there characters in this short verse? Is the rain a character?

To some readers the poem might be a simple invocation for the rain to leave. To other readers, the rain may seem to be stubborn, thoughtless, or inconsiderate. Of course we would need to read more to know for certain.

Suppose we wrote the sentence, “The rain danced on the sidewalk in celebration of being reunited with the earth.”

Now we are definitely assigning human qualities to the rain. Without doubt, the rain has become a character. Characters do not have to be people; they can also be places or things. In fact, anything that can be imbued with motivation can be a character.

So, a fantasy story might incorporate a talking book. An action story might employ a killer wolverine. And a horror story might conjure up the vengeful smoke from a log that was cut from a sentient tree and burned in a fireplace.

When we come to a story we either already have some ideas for a character or characters we would like to use, or we will likely soon find the need for some. But how can we come up with these characters, or how can we develop the rough characters we already have?

Coming up with characters is as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved. But that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting. Making these characters intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. But first things first, let us look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)


Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse. What characters immediately suggest themselves?

Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archaeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter

What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?

Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary

How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?

Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner

And perhaps some less likely characters?

Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)

We could, of course, go on and on. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.

Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.

First we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.

Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.

The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown a mousy thing.

Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. We’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.

What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.

How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.”

The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we are given – so far only vocation and gender.

Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.

We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?

What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?

It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.

What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.

Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!

Many authors come to a story realizing they need some sort of central character and then try to decide what kind or person he or she should be from scratch. But it is far easier to first build a cast of characters that really excite you (as we did above) and then ask yourself which one you would like to be the central character.

So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?

And how would things change depending upon who we pick as the Villain or Antagonist? In fact, by choosing one of these characters as the Hero and another as Villain it will begin to suggest what might happen in the plot, just as picking the subject matter suggested our initial characters. Writer’s block never has to happen. Not when you are armed with this technique to spur your passions.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

Writing an Initial Thematic Synopsis

Some see theme as a premise, such as Greed leads to self-destruction. Others see theme as an area of exploration such as man’s inhumanity to man. Both of these aspects of theme, and more, will need to be explored for your story to have a strong emotional throughline. Therefore, before you begin writing your story, take time to simply describe the issues you would like your story to examine thematically. This thematic synopsis can serve as a guide to keep your story’s message on track.

To this end, you may want to consider these thematic points:

The premise approach to theme usually tries to illustrate the results which grow from human imperfections. To prove its point, a thematic argument must be made over the course of the story to show that the stated outcome is unavoidable if one does not shed oneself of a negative attribute.

Conversely, a premise can just as easily seek to prove that a good trait leads to a favorable outcome, such as Compassion leads to true happiness. More complex themes may even propose that Compassion leads to self-destruction, or that Greed leads to true happiness, creating mixed feelings in the audience. Of course, all of this is tempered by the manner in which the material is presented: as comedy or drama, for example.

Exploration themes tend to be less linear, seeking to examine a positive or negative trait in a number of manifestations such that the audience ultimately arrives at an overall rating of that trait ranging somewhere along the scale from favorable to unfavorable. For example, one author might show that man’s inhumanity to man is an inherent evil. Another author might put forth that man’s inhumanity to man is a necessary evil that allows for progress of the species. Yet another author might propose that man’s inhumanity to man is a good thing because only through physical and emotional violence is the human spirit truly alive.

No matter how popular or unpopular a thematic value may be with an audience, a story always gains in depth and power from a fully developed theme.

Though you will eventually want to add detail and nuance fo your theme, for your initial thematic synopsis, simply describe the central message or thematic topic of your story, and how you want the audience to feel about it.

Example: Star Wars seeks to prove that if we keep a noble heart and trust in ourselves, we will ultimately triumph over any opposition, no matter how outmatched we appear to be.

Excerpted from
Dramatica Pro Story Development Software

Writing an Initial Plot Synopsis

Plot refers to the sequence of events which transpire in your story. Before you begin developing your story, it helps to create a brief outline of any ideas you may have already worked out for your plot.

Plots can be simple or complex. There can be a single plot to a story or any number of sub-plots. Some stories even have two or more independent plots which run in parallel, never affecting each other but providing a sense of contrast for the audience.

Try not to be overly literary or descriptive at this point. Even if you have already developed intricate details, when writing an initial plot synopsis you only need enough information to identify the key events which link together to advance your story. This information will serve as a guide down the line to ensure your overall story stays on track.


EXAMPLE: Star Wars

Orphaned Luke Skywalker who works on his uncle’s farm chases a runaway robot helper into the desert where he encounters a retired warrior with mystic powers, Obi Wan Kenobi. The robot has a hidden message that leads Luke and Obi on a race across the galaxy to get important information to rebel fighters against the Evil Empire.

Along the way, they join forces with an unruly transport pilot who gives them passage off the planet. The Empire tries to stop them in a big laser gun battle, but they escape.

Later, they get captured by Darth Vader aboard a huge space station with a weapon which can destroy whole planets. There, they rescue Princess Leia, a leader of the Rebels, who joins them in their race to get the information into the right hands. Again, they escape except for Obi Wan, who is killed (though his spirit lives on to guide Luke.)

Eventually, they hook up with the Rebels and hand over the information which shows how to destroy the space station weapon. Luke gets his chance to be a fighter pilot when he joins the rebels, and they all blast into space to do battle with the space station which has tracked them down.

In the end, Luke (guided by Obi’s spirit) learns to rely on his own skills and single-handedly destroys the weapon just when all hope seems lost. He comes back a hero and a legendary warrior in his own right.

Excerpted from
Dramatica Pro Story Development Software

Writing an Initial Character Synopsis

When you are about to begin developing your story, you may already have some ideas about the characters you want to explore. Creating a brief initial character synopsis can help you pin down the list of people you’ve been considering to populate your story and to act as a reference as story development continues.

Some of your characters may play a role in the dramatic structure of your story, perhaps affecting plot and theme as well. Other characters might be included for entertainment value only and have no tangible impact on the course of the overall story. Either way, it helps to briefly describe them before you begin writing.

Try not to be overly literary or descriptive in your initial synopsis. You only need enough information to identify your characters by name, basic personality type, and traits and attributes, such as their job, a physical ability or disability and their relationships to other character as you currently see them.

EXAMPLE: Star Wars

Luke Skywalker is a farm boy with dreams of becoming a hot shot space fighter pilot in the rebellion against the evil Empire.

Obi Wan Kenobi is a former Jedi Knight who befriends Luke and teaches him warrior skills. He is an old man now, but still has strong powers, especially of the mystic sort.

Princess Leia is a leader in the rebellion. She’s a real take-charge lady. Perhaps a love interest for Luke.

Uncle Owen. Luke’s somewhat authoritarian Uncle and guardian.

The Alien Band: A group of musicians from all over the galaxy who play weird music in a local bar.

Excerpted from
Dramatica Pro Story Development Software