Discover your secret weapon
By Hollie Smurthwaite
Brainstorming is a writer’s secret weapon.
No matter how phenomenal the plot, without memorable, unique characters, your story won’t reach its full potential. Sometimes, characters come to us whole, vivid, and as real as your uncle. Other times, they are as cliched and flat as a two-dimensional piece of paper.
By setting aside a minimal amount of time to create, you free your mind to travel beyond what is immediately accessible. A little brainstorming can turn a sheet of paper into an airplane (or a throwing star).
You can brainstorm your characters to fit your plot, or you can brainstorm the plot to fit the characters—whatever motivates you.
When I began writing this article, I thought about all the brainstormable aspects of character. Basically, I brainstormed brainstorming. Here is a partial list:
- The basic essentials: names, physical attributes, and profession.
- The plot essentials: goal, motivation, conflict; wounds and false beliefs.
- The personality essentials: fears, loves, hates, secrets, and quirks.
- The interpersonal essentials: relationship dynamics, family situation, and social status.
Discover the Quintessential
Where to begin? Here’s one starting point: when creating a character’s physical description, sometimes we find ourselves with the dreaded laundry list. Brainstorming allows us to delve deeper, to discover the quintessential.
This is from Riley Thorn and the Corpse in the Closet by Lucy Score:
“She was petite with ramrod posture and looked as if she wore a coat hanger under her layers of flowing black. With her pinched frown and sterling hair swept back from her face with bird feathers, she reminded her granddaughter of an old, disappointed Stevie Nicks.”
This tells us far more about the character than height, weight, and eye color, and it’s funny and entertaining.
Brainstorming also can be used for the interiority of characters. Typically, we have some idea about our protagonists. If not, there are character shorthand resources: Jungian archetypes, enneagrams, Myers-Briggs personalities, mythology, people we know, characters from books and movies (hello, Mr. Darcy), and more. These can serve as a block of marble from which you chisel out your creations.
We can use brainstorming to create an individual character or construct an entire cast evoked by a concept. This can be tied into theme, imagery, or something altogether separate. Consider characters based on: weather (rain, hail, sleet, snow, drought, tornado); plants (orchids, dandelions, poison oak, creeping ivy, cacti, etc.); Spice Girls (sporty, scary, ginger, posh, baby). Pick something at random and play with it. See what it inspires. An added benefit to using concepts to brainstorm several characters is they will naturally develop differently from one another and can create a fantastic hook for distinctive voices.
Next, in order to make a character unique, you'll need to find something exceptional about them—defining qualities. Characters, like people, should have some surprises and contradictions. A protagonist who is only sweet will never be as compelling as one who is sweet, bitter, sour, and a bit umami. How you spice your characters is how you make them memorable.
In Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, the protagonist is a badass—tough on the inside and outside. Men (and women) underestimate her and make rude assumptions, and she's happy to show them the error of their ways with very violent means. She could easily fall into a stereotype, but then there’s this from Guilty Pleasures:
“I took one more thing to bed with me, a stuffed toy penguin named Sigmund. I don’t sleep with him often, just every once in a while after someone tries to kill me. Everyone has their weaknesses. Some people smoke. I collect stuffed penguins. If you won’t tell, I won’t.”
The specific detail of liking stuffed penguins helps propel Anita from a potential caricature into real personhood and provides a satisfying pop of surprise. It can also be fun for the writer.
The point isn’t to pick some random quirk (unless it is), but rather to find something extra inside your character. What you choose for an outlier or spice should say something important about the character and have bearing on the story. It should also resonate inside you. Finding the detail should feel good.
Let’s take our Mr. Darcy-like character. Say we’re working on the relationship between him and the female protagonist. We’ve decided on a sunshine-grumpy dynamic. Our hero is dour, arrogant, or cranky. For the couple to solidify by the end, Grump needs an arc. He must move from his curmudgeonly self in the beginning to someone—probably still reserved—but with some tenderness inside. It will, of course, take the length of the book to get there.
However, we want to signal the possibility of change so readers don't chuck the book because Grump is so unlikable. Here’s where brainstorming can help.
My first thought: he loves dogs. (Never take your first idea, as it’s likely to be something already done before, perhaps overdone). Make a list of thirty-six ways you could show a softer side of Grump. You can, of course, choose a different target goal (or you can go by time), but the deeper you go down the possibilities, the more creative you’ll need to be.
Don’t stop at ten!
Surprise yourself with what you find when you reach idea twenty-nine. It's something you wouldn't have found if you'd stopped in the teens. Find something surprising about Grump that hints at something complex and fascinating underneath.
He loves ferrets. He collects stamps, knits, writes letters to people in nursing homes, corresponds with people in jail, buys coffee for the person behind him when he goes through the Starbucks drive-through, plays guitar, rocks the accordion, jams in a bluegrass band, sings off-key in the shower, has a meaningful tattoo, or loves White Castle (there's always going to be weirdo items on your list). Seriously, how does loving White Castle make a person softer? Maybe he hires homeless vets for work projects, he fixes up vintage cars, he's a stargazer, he visits a psychic every month, he lets his niece ride him like a pony, he gives up his seat on the bus, he holds his umbrella over a stranger, he buys ten boxes of Girl Scout cookies even though he hates sweets … and keep going.
This is where plot and character intersect. Because our sunshine heroine has been thinking what a colossal jerk the hero is, and then, suddenly, he's buying out a bullied child's Girl Scout cookie stock and leaving them in the corporate break room. Now, she (and the reader) has to reassess how she thinks of him.
Brainstorming is particularly useful for secondary characters and even the tertiary crew because you don’t want to take up too much novel real estate on the supporting cast, but you still want something interesting. Consider this description of a cop from Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys:
“The officer of the court was a good old boy with a meaty backwoods beard and a hungover wobble to his step. He'd outgrown his shirt and the pressure against the buttons made him look upholstered. But he was a white man with a pistol so despite his dishevelment he sent a vibration.”
The officer is in one scene and isn’t important to the narrative. In three sentences, Whitehead has painted not only a vivid picture, but also given us character with his choices.
It's impossible to get everything right in the first draft, so character descriptions can always be penciled in with cliché and first-choice details, and upgraded during revision. I want to believe nobody is so genius to come up with "upholstered" in his initial try.
Setting and Physical Description
Brainstorming is also useful for personal items like clothing, habitat, vehicles, diet, etc. Not everything needs a deep dive, but this is especially helpful if setting and physical description aren't aspects of writing you enjoy. When you have to describe the character's apartment and it makes you want to stab yourself in the eye with a calligraphy pen, take two to five minutes and brainstorm. Even set a timer.
What is in the apartment/house/trailer/condo? When you're finished, review your list and pick the few items that really prick your imagination and say something about either the character observing the space or the one who lives there.
Marie Kondo your descriptions, throwing out anything that doesn't spark joy. What you have left, hopefully, will be distinctive and vivid enough to do the heavy lifting and propel the story forward. Give us the plastic cover on the floral couch, and we don't need to know about the hutch, ottoman, and coffee table.
From All Adults Here by Emma Straub:
“On the other side of the door, a large crowd filled nearly all the pews. The room was simple, with diamond-shaped windows of red, yellow, and green. It felt how Porter imagined pre-school would look like in Sweden. Pale, and light with the sun.”
What more do you need?
Since the entire process of brainstorming consists of making lists, you can also leverage it in batches. Perhaps you want to show the bareness of the refrigerator. What comes immediately to my mind is nothing but condiments and moldy leftovers (probably Chinese food). How can you make this more intriguing and precise to your character? You don't necessarily have to, and you might not want to, but if you take a few moments to dig deep, it will do a lot of work for the overall project.
It’s the details that matter. A sticky bottle of Worcestershire sauce. Celery that hasn't browned but has lost its crunch. An electric bill tucked under a three-pound brick of provolone.
From Gail Honeymoon's Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine:
“There are so many liquids and substances inside me, and I try to list them all as I lie here. There is earwax. The yellow pus that festers inside spots. Blood, mucus, urine, feces, chyme, bile, saliva, tears. I am a butcher's shop window of organs, large and small, pink, gray, red. All of this jumbled inside bones, encased in skin, then covered with fine hair. The skin bag is flawed, speckled with moles, freckles, little broken veins. And scars, of course. I think of a pathologist examining this carcass, noting every detail, weighing each organ. Meat inspection. Fail.”
Think of brainstorming whenever you find yourself cringing at a character description, location, or word choice (or if you're bored). Stop, carve out a few minutes, and come up with something so amazing your toes tap in anticipation when people read your work, waiting for them to get to the precious sentences that make you most proud.
Embrace the power of brainstorming. I hope you brandish this tool again and again for character, plot, and everything in between.
Hollie Smurthwaite is the author of The Color of Trauma, a paranormal romantic suspense novel and winner of the 2020 Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project in adult fiction. She lives in Chicago with her husband, son, and too few pets.