someone: haha why are you so obsessed with *insert show/book series/film/etc)
me, internally: because throwing myself into something allows me to briefly forget the constant depression misery and sadness i suffer through every day and when i marathon things my self hatred sometimes starts to disappear because i forget that i’m a real person who exists in the real world. my obsessions help me to cope when i feel like i’m about to explode or cry or scream or all of those at once and once i get into something i barely think of anything else for weeks which is a very unhealthy coping tactic but hey it helps so
James and Sirius, upon entering the park, make a beeline to secure fast passes for their favorite rides (the ones like Matterhorn, Indiana Jones, Space Mountain, etc.)
At this point, Remus is really regretting not investing in a pair of those child-leashes that a good third of the parents at the theme park are sporting.
Peter tries running after Sirius and James, but gives up (not being fast enough) and hangs back alongside Remus, getting distracted by the array of gift/candy shops lining Main Street USA
Remus has to get a picture of Sleeping Beauty’s castle upon entering. He just has to.
James and Sirius are really smug when they get to cut in front of everyone with their fast passes. Remus just gives apologetic looks, and Peter has to shovel down the pretzel he bought before they get on the ride.
Ok, so considering the average temperature for Scotland during the summer time is around fifty seven degrees, and for southern California (L.A.) it’s around eighty one- they’re dying.
James and Sirius are wearing the bare minimum, and Remus has to rent a locker to stuff his sweater into
Sirius is rocking a man bun
James buys a Wizard Mickey hat and absolutely refuses to take it off
Peter may or may not be on his fifth churro by the time lunch rolls around
Remus really enjoys the small corners and alleys of the park where the crowd thins
Peter gets a coonskin hat from frontierland
Lots of shameless flirting with princesses coming from Sirius that result in autographs with the occasional phone number attached.
James seeing the Ariel and automatically missing Lily
Peter getting sick on the teacups ride after James decides to spin theirs as fast as he fucking can.
Lots of “JAMES NO!”
Sirius and James, after hearing about the two hundred feral cats that prowl the park at night, decide to go on a hunt for them
They legit smuggle cat nip inside the park and search the bushes for cats
Remus is so done with everyone’s shit
He just wants to have a normal visit at Disneyland is that so hard to ask?
Peter really wants to watch the parades, but Remus sees this as an opportune time to beat the crowds (now gathered along the street) to the rides
Remus is honestly ride or die. He doesn’t fuck with these slow ass tourists who have no idea where they’re going. He knows where to go and everyone is getting in his way.
Sirius getting picked on by characters (i.e. Chip ‘n Dale tugging on his man bun and snickering at it)
James in a flexing contest with Gaston
Remus only taking pictures the Mickey and Friends characters
And he’s all embarrassed to walk up to them at first
James taking the mic from the tour guide on Jungle Cruise because he thinks his jokes are lame, so he starts dishing out puns like its nothing and does a mic drop
Peter screaming a little too shrilly when the Yeti pops out on the Matterhorn
Sirius and James trying to find the entrance to the secret basketball court on the matterhorn
Also using alohomora to get into restricted areas of the park
Sirius singing Small World on repeat
James trying to harmonize
Remus really likes walking through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (James and Sirius are hardly impressed)
But his favorite ride is the Disneyland Rail Road
Peter’s favorite ride is Star Tours and he convinces the others to ride it at least four times throughout the day.
James’ favorite ride is Indiana Jones. When he sees the snake statues in the ride, he mutters “Snivellus?”
Sirius prefers Pirates of the Caribbean
Remus getting really insecure because he notices little kids looking at the scars on his face with mild confusion- some are even scared
But then Peter Pan comes over and he does his thing. He tells Remus (making a big show of it so that others can hear) that he must’ve put up a good fight against the “pirate” that did that, and comments on how brave he is
Remus is just smiling the entire time and plays along with Peter Pan, and the kids gathered around are awestruck
Sirius and James posing for the camera on Splash Mountain
Having to restrain Sirius and James from jumping into the Rivers of America to get to the island
If you’ve been doing this writing thing for more than one day, you’ve likely experienced the following worry:
“What if my story idea ISN’T ORIGINAL?”
And if my experience is any indication, things spiraled downwards from there: “What if it’s cliche? What if there’s nothing new here?! It IS cliche. It ISN’T original. I’m a failure! ALL MY WRITING NEEDS TO BURN!”
Calm yourself. There’s a way to make sure that your story concept is unique.
First, what IS a story concept? It’s the initial idea that made you want to write the thing. It’s the “What If” question that starts everything off. Later, it will be the promise that hooks the reader or audience, and makes them want to experience the story.
So for example: What if Cinderella was a cyborg? What if a rat wanted to be a french chef? What if a fish had to venture across the ocean to find his son who’s captive in a dentist’s office aquarium?
All great concepts. All of which seem to be comprised of two elements: something that we already know about, a set up that establishes expectations, and then something contrasting and surprising, which creates irony or surprise. So the first element of a successful story concept is FAMILIARITY.
Establishing expectations? Something we already know about? Familiarity?! That sounds like the definition of UNorginal.
Hear me out.
What do readers do when foraging for a new novel at the bookstore? Certain readers gravitate to certain shelves. Some go to mysteries, some to crime, a whole lot to romance, and the rest to the other genres that are too numerous to list.
Why is this? Because genres give them a pretty good idea about what they’re going to get. Readers already know the conventions of the genre. They’ve already put in the work of learning, accepting, and enjoying these conventions.
Genres give both reader and writer something to go on right away. For the reader, genres are expectations for story events, setting, character, and more, which are automatically enjoyable to them. For a writer, it’s a set of expectations which can be flipped to create something remarkable and unique.
It’s like telling a joke. Without a setup, there can’t be a punchline.
The genres are the setup, the individual twist the author puts on that genre is the punchline. Or in other words, readers truly do want the same thing –only different.
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at one of the most successful stories of all time.
With space ships, interplanetary travel, sentient robots, and aliens running amok, Star Wars LOOKS to be the kind of story that requires the audience to expend lots of mental energy to comprehend and believe. At first glance, it seems that imaginations are going to have to stretch a great deal, and there won’t be anything familiar to ground us – this SEEMS like an uncomfortably new, unwelcoming world. But I doubt if anyone has ever felt uncomfortable or unwelcome while watching Star Wars. And the reason for this can be summed up with one ellipsis-ended sentence:
Suddenly, all is clear. This isn’t the hard-to-imagine future, this is the PAST. We’re not being asked to imagine and believe a totally new world; we’re being taken to the realm of “far, far away”, a place we’ve known since childhood. Isn’t “a long time ago” just another way of saying “once upon a time”? Yes, it is, so we know where we are now. We are in a fairy tale, a myth.
The familiarity of fairy tales sets us at ease and sets our expectations in place. Expectations which Star Wars meets with flying colors: A farmboy who must become a knight. A princess imploring for aide. A mystical wise-old-man mentor. Sword fights between good and evil. A magic that operates like religion. A dark lord and a dark side. Star Wars was built upon something we already know, something timeless, something we’ve always enjoyed.
And once those well-known expectations were set, Star Wars was free to add the unexpected and create one of those most memorable story worlds ever. Think of a story you love, and you’ll probably be able to identify the something-already-known aspect of it.
How about Harry Potter?
When we hear “boarding school”, mental images and probabilities are instantly conjured in our minds. We picture classrooms, dormitories, a campus with very old buildings, kids in uniforms, a giant place for meals, living through a schoolyear with a bunch of kids your age, etc. Even if we don’t know much about boarding school, we all know what regular school is like (even us homeschoolers over here *waves*) and our expectations for that are nearly identical from person to person.
So what does this prove?
It proves that one half of your story’s concept must be grounded in something we already know, and know well. These are the expectations you are going to establish for your reader, before the second element of your concept upends everything and creates something wholly unique.
You need FAMILIARITY. You need to ground your concept in something WELL-KNOWN. Only then will you be able to create something ORIGINAL.
Where can familiarity be found?
1. Genre Conventions
3. Well-known stories
The possibilities are not limited to these categories, of course. Familiar subjects can be found within many other areas. However, Familiar elements seem to share certain qualities …
⦁ Provides a rough timeline
⦁ Conjures imagery
⦁ Sets expectations for events, characters, opposition, etc
⦁ Has natural potential for conflict
⦁ Serves as a goal-oriented backdrop for the plot
To see how this works, let’s look at Harry Potter again:
Familiarity: Going to boarding school. (An occupation)
Timeline: A school year (which Voldy always lets Harry complete before trying to kill him again, bless him.)
Story Expectations: When we hear “school”, we know what we’re going to get.
Imagery: Boarding school conjures tons of possibilities.
Conflict Potential: It’s a thousand kids living in one castle with a handful of adults – there’s going to be conflict.
Goal-Oriented: School is inherently goal directed. You want to graduate. And in the case of boarding school, you want to win the house cup.
But of course, this familiar environment is only HALF of the concept for Harry Potter. The other half, of course, is WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY. Which brings us to the 2nd element of a successful story concept, which will be the subject of the next post.
<b><p></b> <b>Me:</b> oh, I shouldn't read this fanfic.<p/><b>Brain:</b> WHY NOT<p/><b>Me:</b> I'm tired and this fic is really long<p/><b>Brain:</b> WHO NEEDS SLEEP<p/><b>Me:</b> *still awake at 2:00 am* I NEED to sort out my priorities<p/></p><p/></p>
<b><p></b> <b>Hufflepuff:</b> Do you want to see the new Beauty and the Beast movie?<p/><b>Ravenclaw:</b> *playing "Evermore" loudly*<p/><b>Ravenclaw:</b> I've seen it twice already.<p/><b>Hufflepuff:</b> So is that a no?<p/><b>Ravenclaw:</b> Are you crazy, when's the next showing?<p/></p><p/></p>
“I don’t like your main character. He’s kind of obnoxious.” my beta reader laughingly told me, after reading the first chapter of my novel.
On the surface, I looked like this:
Inside, I looked like this:
Aloud, I said “Oh, well, he’s kind of hard to understand. He changes by the end.”
Inside, I screamed “How could you not like him?! Do you have a heart?! Is there a void where your soul should be?! Are you actually a Dementor that’s really good at makeup? Well, I guess this is what the Dementors are doing after getting kicked out of Azkaban!”
Outside: “But I really enjoyed it!” *Hugs between broken writer and Dementor in disguise* “Thank you for reading!"
But you know what? That person that might be a soul-sucking cloaked demon creature? They were right. The character was unlikable, or more accurately, there was no reason to cheer him on. There was nothing to make the reader connect with him, relate to him, transfer themselves into his story, feel affection towards him.
And if the reader doesn’t connect with the character through empathy? Nothing else in the story can work. Everything relies on this one fictional person. The basic definition of story is "A flawed hero with a goal overcoming obstacles to reach that goal, and how that journey changes them.” So without character, you don’t have story. Without empathy from the reader, you don’t even have character.
So what is empathy when it comes to characters?
It’s the process of a reader transferring their own lives onto the character. When this happens, the character’s goal and inner desires, values and weaknesses, everything about them, become proxies for our own. We learn of a shared piece of human nature between us, something we have in common on a significant inner level, and suddenly we want to see this character succeed. Because now, they are us – and we want to see ourselves succeed in real life. We feel what they feel, we experience what they experience.
The best way to sum up character empathy in my opinion, is this quote from C.S.Lewis: “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another ‘Really? You too? I thought I was the only one!’”
Which doesn’t mean the character has to be an angelic little cherub …
There are characters that operate in a moral gray area, there are characters that are downright awful, there are characters that shouldn’t be lovable …but we love them. So this is NOT saying that a main character has to be a perfect angel that rescues baby squirrels when they’re not busy volunteering at the local soup kitchen, it just means there’s something WORTHWHILE in the character that persuades the reader to stick around. We need a reason to relate with that at-first-glance unlikable character. Just as we have flawed people in our own lives who we can forgive and love.
A good quote for this one would be this, by G.K.Chesterton: “That’s the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
So how does a writer accomplish a good empathetic connection?
Luckily for us, establishing this only takes a little planning in the beginning of the story. Certain elements foster empathy, elements which you can give to your character and display in the story. Making sure to incorporate a few of these will ensure that first connection between reader and character. A connection which you, the author, will then be able to grow. It’s this tiny first note of shared humanity which deepens into those important links we hold with characters. We’re living people, they’re imagined and comprised of words on a page; yet these people can be friends to us, family, mentors, role models, and become some of the most influential people in our lives.
And how does that begin? Evoking empathy.
And how do you evoke empathy? Well here are the characteristics that human beings instinctively identify with and admire …
– Courage (This is the one EVERY main character should possess. Gumption to pursue what they want separates main from background characters.)
It’s a good plan to give your main character at least FIVE of these empathetic little “virtues.”
If this sounds like a resume, that’s kind of what it is. “Dear Potential Reader, I’m applying for the job of Main Character of this book series. I aspire to consume your every waking thought and drastically change your life, for better and worse.” It’s a diagram of the worthwhile traits of the hero, the characteristics that win us over, which promise the reader “If you follow my story, knowing me – and experiencing the story through me – will be well worth your time.”
These traits will be displayed in the set-up of the story, the first ten pages or so. But the story CANNOT stop to let the character exhibit these winning behaviors; the story must KEEP PROGRESSING, every empathetic element must be shown with a story reason for existing within a scene. Like exposition, empathy needs to be added in subtly, as the story motors onward, slipping into the reader’s knowledge without them noticing. If it’s a scene created for the express purpose of convincing the reader “This character is lovable! Love them! I said love them!” then it will be glaringly obvious and the reader will feel the exact opposite. (They’ll also feel that way about the author, incidentally.)
Now! How does this work?
Harry is the poster child for being treated unfairly. Yet in the face of the abusive treatment of his childhood, Harry is courageous. He does not succumb to the Dursley’s relentless campaign to stamp the magic out of him, and become a proper Dursley; though this would’ve won their approval, put him in their good graces, and made his life exponentially easier – but he didn’t do it. He knew they were wrong, knew what was right, and refused to become like them. So heck yes Sorting Hat, there is “plenty of courage, I see”. He was loved by his parents, by the three that dropped him off at his Aunt and Uncle’s, and by the majority of the Wizarding World. He’s also snarky, loving, and in constant danger.
Every reason why we care about Judy is established in the first few scenes. She’s courageous. She’s funny. She’s loved by her parents. She’s motivated by noble values. Definitely goal oriented, hard working, and smart. She’s also in imminent danger, and being treated unfairly.
If we took out the pieces of the story meant to evoke our empathy, what would happen?
Nobody would care. Judy Hopps would have been an annoying, smug, and consumed by ruthless ambition. Harry Potter would have ceased to exist because everything about him is empathetic.
Establishing these early allows us to begin the process of temporarily transferring our lives into a story. Or in the case of some life-changing stories, not temporarily transferring, but letting them become part of our souls forever.
Yup, having your story connect with a reader forever starts with just a little empathy. Pretty useful.
Oh, and speaking of souls, give me mine back, Dementor reader. I learned how to make people like my characters. Now you’re out of the Azkaban job and the beta reading job.