Liberate Your Story By Placing Your Characters in a Web of Constraints

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 7, 2011
Categories: Craft, Creativity
Comments: No Comments

My current project is writing a young adult novel set in the Angel Punk universe.  Angel Punk is a transmedia project that uses a feature film, a comic book series, a fan engagement site, and a novel to tell interwoven but non-overlapping stories.  Here’s the teaser:

Power. Greed. Tragedy. Forgiveness. 

Angels Turned Mortal

A Supernatural World Divided

The Angel Punk saga follows Mara Layil on a journey of discovery as she’s unwittingly thrust into a millennia-old struggle between supernatural dynasties. This hidden world of ancient wonders and dark secrets forces the orphaned teen to accept her own incredible power and confront her family’s mysterious past.  Awakened to the truth, Mara must choose sides. Hidden assassins, shattered oaths, exiled eternals and warring Nephilim all play a part in the greatest supernatural conflict of all time.

The most common question I get asked is this one: “Did they give you an outline to follow?”  The subtext is either (1) if I did get an outline, doesn’t that undermine me as a creative person and (2) if I didn’t get an outline, do I fight all the time with the rest of the team?

I’ll answer the question and then get to the point of this post.  When I took the gig, I read the movie and comic scripts as well as the in-depth legacy (background) document on the universe.  It was a crash course in the characters, the mythology, the socio-political structure, and the history of all things Angel Punk.  I did not get an outline for the novel.

In initial meetings, we decided that the inciting event for the action of the novel should be the climatic scene of the movie.  The action of the novel would begin where comic book issue #3 ends.  And the novel would end when…  (I can’t tell you that!)  That was the extent of my “outline.”  Yet the plot is constrained by all of the other properties.  My story must be consistent with and extend the stories in the movie and comics.

OK. Finally, I’m at the point of this post.  Constraints are a good thing.  Every good story operates within constraints.  A story without them is a shapeless mass of whatever you’ve dumped out of your subconscious mind.  In other words, NOT a story.  It’s true that writers invent worlds, but the worlds have to have rules that are consistent.

SETTING:

Every world has physical laws (gravity, planetary orbits, etc), environmental conditions (weather, habitat, inhabitants), and rules that govern how plants, animals, and people behave.  Your story occurs in a particular time, at a season, in a place.  These are good constraints and you have to stick with them.  One key is to balance the strange with the familiar.  There has to be enough that is familiar for us to relate to but also be unique.  This is true whether you’re writing sci-fi or about the Inuit.  I adore Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, but the Keys to the Kingdom lost me because I never got grounded in the rules of the place.

CHARACTERS:

Realistic characters are constrained in their choices by their history and their personalities.  Plot occurs when characters make choices.  They have to do things that are consistent with “who they are.”  You might want your character to jump a freight train because you need the plot to move to another city, but if she is too short (or too shy) to reach up into an empty boxcar, she can’t do it.  Boom – you are constrained.

BACKSTORY:

We give our characters and our worlds histories.  Those histories must logically lead to the decisions characters make and to the structure of our worlds.  A war-torn people can not suddenly lay down arms.  You have to make me believe that is a logical outgrowth of the action.

The take-home message: your story is actually liberated by the constraints you place upon it.  Conflict is critical to a good story.  Placing characters inside of a system of constraints causes conflict.  The result is emotional truth.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.

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