"I read newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction." This humorous quote from Aneurin Bevan, the architect of Britain's National Health Service following World War II, is also packed with advice for fiction writers. Newspapers—whether online or print—offer a wealth of story ideas, inspiration for character development, and engrossing portrayals of humanity and inhumanity. Read the local section that highlights everyday people confronting the ordinary trappings of life. Choose a person, event, or experience that captures your attention. Begin your next story there.
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
Tension is critical in fiction. Tension is the difference between a story about a boy flying a kite and a story about a boy flying a kite in an electrical storm. Tension often is created through conflict—which means your character must want something desperately: an apology from a lover, respect from a father, a cup of water on a crowded lifeboat. Revisit your writing and read it carefully for tension, which keeps readers engaged and propels the story forward. If you stop reading, check for lapses in tension.
“I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times.” This quote from author William Styron, who died in 2006 at age eighty-one, addresses the role of tone in fiction. People are the products of their times; they are influenced by the economic, political, and cultural climate that surrounds them. Write five hundred words that bring to life the mood of the society your characters inhabit. A bloody sunset, a tarnished silver fork, or a character’s stoic posture can make vital intangible forces accessible to your readers.
Details are critical to character development, especially when describing a character’s face. A glass eye, a crooked nose, or thin lips can convey more meaning than exposition or action. Describe the face of your protagonist, and then describe the face of your antagonist. What qualities do they share? How are they different? Write so that a comparison of the characters’ faces provides both symmetry and juxtaposition that symbolizes the nature of their relationship.
Sleep deprivation can make any person act strangely. A barking dog, a leaky faucet, or a loud and unruly neighbor can own the night, turning pleasant people into frazzled malcontents. Write five hundred words about a protagonist who is prevented from sleeping by an outside force, and describe how this character handles the stress and resolves the challenging situation.
Class is often characterized by how an individual treats others when no one is looking. Without interference from societal judgment, family expectations, or peer pressure, people often act very differently—revealing much about their true natures. Some become selfish and ruthless. Others shine with empathy and magnanimity. Place your protagonist in such a situation. Allow your character to take the lead. As a writer, it is your job to follow and relay what happens. Write five hundred words.
Fiction writers know that conflict drives plot. Tension and drama imbue life into our characters and propel their stories forward. Human nature, however, craves tranquility and clarity. Write five hundred words describing your protagonist at peace—truly one with the universe, even if only for several seconds. Perhaps your character is sitting on a park bench and staring at a bruised cloud, or on a crowded subway car listening to the rails below, or walking out of a cemetery with a beer in hand. Peace is unique to everyone.
Halloween evokes the power of tradition, superstition, and society. Our children dress up as heroes, goblins, and villains and scamper along our neighbors’ sidewalks, lawns, and driveways beseeching candy. Write six hundred words about a confrontation between an adult homeowner and a group of children. Allow the colors, tones, noises, smells, and feel of Halloween to inform—if not define—your writing. Be funny. Be scary. Be creative.
“Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction,” storyteller John Cheever once stated in an interview. Place your protagonist in an unexpected situation—trapped in a chimney, confronted by a ghost, or suddenly penniless. Unforeseen conflict reveals hidden character flaws and virtues. Don’t self-edit. Though it may not make the final draft, experimental writing deeply informs both style and character. Writing is the act of failing forward every time you sit down.
Our characters reveal themselves through their actions—not only in dramatic scenes that involve death, injury, or heartache, but in small, subtle ways too. Show how a character in your fiction eats. Is the character’s demeanor ravenous and paranoid or slow and sophisticated? How your character eats, appreciates, and relates to food reveals much about his or her upbringing, emotional state, and intellectual disposition.
Pets are playing an increasingly important role in the lives of many people and families in our society. Pets offer companionship, unconditional love, or simply represent a welcome living force in our imperfect homes. Write a scene where an animal or pet stops a character from feeling lonely, stressed, or on the brink of madness. Explore the complex, but very deep and real, relationship between animals and people.
Life is stressful. How our characters handle—or don’t handle—stress reveals much about them. Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains. Write six hundred words.
As children our imaginations ruled the land. However, years of life, love, and loss erode our creative shores and the rustling trees and vibrant animals that inhabited them. The unstoppable dinosaurs and steaming teacups in our small hands suddenly become pieces of plastic from a toy store. Write a short story through the eyes of a four-year-old child. Go on an adventure.
People are complex. So are believable characters. Much of what comprises our characters stems from the writer’s knowledge of the universe and writing’s miraculous universality. Think of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Jane Eyre, and Oscar de León—or your own favorite characters. What about these notable literary figures gives them life and humanity? Write a paragraph that defines the complexities of each character you are developing. Tack these paragraphs to the wall beside your desk, and use them as guidelines for your characters whenever their voices are muted by the harsh winds of creativity.
Dialogue is about economy of words. Less means more. Dialogue should reveal characters through tension. Write a scene in which your protagonist must convince a stranger to divulge his or her social security number. The context is irrelevant. Use the conversation to show readers who, exactly, this protagonist is. At the end of the scene, have the stranger whisper the number into the protagonist’s ear.
Resist the temptation to build characters according to stereotypes. Character development must reflect the complexities of real people. Even Pure Evil buys his favorite niece a pony for her birthday. Learn to love your villains as people, and they will reward you as characters. Write a scene where the most despicable character in your fiction does something deeply touching and loving. Then send them on their evil way.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This writing axiom extolled by Kurt Vonnegut underscores the importance of human desire. However, desire often stems from human frailty: the need to fill or compensate for something we lack—a mothers’ love, approval from society, the ability to forgive ourselves. Write about what your protagonist's desires; this is where the story begins.
Human beings are unpredictable. We can snap, betraying decades of impeccable behavior and moral living. A devoted wife cheats with her son’s tennis coach. A respected policeman steals M&Ms from a convenience store. A shy boy kicks a cup from the hands of a homeless woman. Human frailty is an important part of humanity, and our characters. Our attempts to hide indiscretions often lead to unfathomable tragedy. Write a scene where your protagonist snaps. Show, don’t tell.
Juxtaposition creates tension, contrast, and intrigue. Think of two objects that don’t belong together next to each other: a cat skeleton and a shrimp cocktail, an antique coffee grinder and a wet scuba mask, a spare car tire on a floating iceberg. Once you choose your items, write the story that brought them together.
Sometimes we are emotionally imprisoned by the ones we love. Overbearing parents, paranoid spouses, and needy children can make us—and our characters—feel trapped in an intolerable life. Write a scene where an antagonist in your writing leaves a loved one behind and begins life anew. Use details to express relief, guilt, and anger.
People change in life, so must your characters. Write a paragraph about your protagonist at age eight discovering a wounded sparrow on the sidewalk. Next write a paragraph about the same protagonist at age forty-two encountering the same sparrow. How are the reactions different? Write a third paragraph about why your character changed. That is the story of your protagonist.
The ping of a spatula. The rattle of dirty plates. A dropped spoon. Place the main character of your story or novel in a diner. Write a paragraph detailing the many sounds this character hears. Then have this same character receive devastating news via an anonymous letter delivered by the waitress. Write another paragraph about the sounds the character now hears. The two paragraphs should be very different. Tragedy changes us instantly in so many ways.
Sit down at your writing desk and look around you. Many of the objects nearby have a utilitarian purpose: Your coffee mug holds coffee, for instance. Other objects, however, possess emotional significance: your grandmother’s portrait over the couch, the painted conch shell you use as a paperweight. Perhaps that same coffee mug says, in faded and defeated letters, “World’s Greatest Parent.” In writing, objects in a character’s personal sphere should reflect something about the character’s emotional DNA. Start the exercise by making a list of meaningful objects within your character’s reach—wherever they may be. Then build their world into the scene. A coffee mug should never just be a coffee mug.
It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own characters. We created them, after all; they are part of us. But remember that characters are human beings and all human beings have flaws—sometimes terrible ones. Insecurity, loneliness, addiction, violence, and even pure evil are not easy to write about. However, flaws can also be the most compelling characteristics of our characters. Flaws create conflict, tension, and drama as our characters slug their way through challenges and heartache. In many ways, weakness can be a character’s greatest literary strength.
In honor of Independence Day, take another look at the great document that was signed by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the others on July 4, 1776. Reread that most famous sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Use it—or rewrite it—in a short story that takes place at dusk on July 4, 2076. Happy Tricentennial?