Being a Better Writer: Fleshing Out Stories and Characters

Welcome back readers! First of all, I apologize for the lateness of the hour with this post. These are supposed to be up in the morning, and it’s something I’ve slipped on further and further over the last few months. One my goals over the coming month is to get that schedule back on track.

Secondly, I am indeed able to report that the same day I posted last week about Stranded (Friday’s post) I did indeed finish off the story. Which means that today I can start going over Alpha Reader feedback, doing some spit and polish, and so forth. I still think it’s a dud, but I’m glad to be done with it all the same and the stuff that I wanted to practice at with it did turn out all right, I think, so it wasn’t a loss.

What does this also mean, however? It means that the Pre-Alpha for Starforge will start this week! That’s right, I’m going to begin poring over Starforge‘s draft at long last and start making nips, tucks, and other fixes and improvements before passing the story on to the Alpha Readers.

Which yes, Alpha Readers, means the book you’ve been clamoring for these last few months is almost in your hands. Be ready, because the last book in the UNSEC Space trilogy is about to arrive at last! Just in time for Christmas!

The rest of you waiting for the epic conclusion to what began in Colony and continued in Jungle will just have to wait a little longer, I’m afraid. The book isn’t going to be out for purchase this year. Next year though …

The only thing I can’t do yet is give you all an estimate as to the full release date. Starforge is massive, about 80,000 words larger than Jungle (which was already a monster), so editing is going to take some time. And as the ultimate peak of the trilogy, I want to make sure it’s shining and brilliant when you all get your hands on it. So, as of right now, no release date outside of “next year” and a confirmation that pre-Alpha work is starting this week.

And that’s the news! A decent chunk of it this time around I would say! Plenty to muse on and get excited over.

But for now? Let’s get talking about writing! This week, we’re talking about fleshing out characters and stories. Which almost sounds a little grotesque if we stop and think about it for a moment, but rest assured it is, like many other things in writing, only a somewhat gross or grim saying.

Boy, we really have a lot of those, don’t we? Ah well, good thing we’re writers! Hit the jump!

All right, as is usual for our experiences here on Unusual Things, we’re to start at the beginning: What does it mean to “flesh out” a character or a story? If you’ve never heard this term before, or perhaps are new to writing, it can sound a little … odd. I’m not even sure of the origin of the saying myself, though I could put forth a few educated guesses if really pressed.

But we’re not here for that. We are here for the facts: and the fact is that “fleshing out” is the term used to describe the process of working additional content into a story in order to add more “meat” to it.

Or, to go from a different angle (and being a bit in line with the likely origin of the phrase), it’s taking a story that is too “bare bones,” a skeleton with a good idea or two that does make for a good story, but not enough of a story to stretch of their interested length without what’s there feeling “thin.”

Perhaps you’ve encountered a story like this before? One that has a clever idea, or a unique take, but then despite the cleverness of the idea it clearly isn’t enough for say, a two-hundred page novel. It’s stretched and ends up being “thin” the whole way through, the plot clearly not enough to sustain its length. Something that should have stayed a short rather than becoming full length.

You may have seen a movie like this. Or several. Hollywood used to really love taking short films and turning them into full, feature-length movies. Often resulting in something that could be dazzling to look at, but felt empty, thin, or stretched, because the original idea was clever and creative, but not quite enough to hang an entire hour and a half worth of audience attention upon once it had moved past its ten or fifteen minute premise.

However, I am almost certain you’ve also seen films where the opposite effect has occurred. Where a simple, shorter story that worked well in a short medium has been successfully adapted into something much larger and grander. I’m actually going to pick on Disney here, but has anyone in this reading audience seen Tangled?

Tangled is a great example of the problem we’re talking about here combined with a well-done solution. Tangled is, at its heart, an adaptation of Rapunzel. Which is a fairy tale that is really only a few-hundred words long. Stretched out into the animated film that Tangled became, it honestly wouldn’t be much of a story. The plot is very limited and straightforward, the characters basic archetypes, etc etc.

Yet one of Disney’s better modern movies comes out of this very simple, straightforward tale. How? Why? Because Disney did exactly what we’re talking about today: They took those basic story elements, those bones of the traditional fairy tale, and they put new material atop them. New layers, new ideas, and new concepts that took a story that can be related by a child in a minute and made it something more complex, with developed characters, theme, setting … everything really. But all without getting rid of the bones that made up the basis of the story.

By now I hope you see what it means to “flesh out” a story. It means to take what is already there and build upon it. Adding and weaving in new layers, be those plot, character, meaning, or something else entirely to the story in order to build the story up.

Now, that last bit is key. In fact, there’s a couple of key elements to this that I want to discuss, because they can be done but done poorly, and in the pursuit of making our writing better, we don’t want that.

There’s a core theme here: Building the story up. There are stories out there that when “fleshing out” things, don’t consider the skeleton of what they have. They throw in extra material, but it’s not interwoven with what’s already there. It’s just shoveled on top. You can probably think of a TV show or two that did this with episodes, where they had two stories going, an A-plot and a B-plot, that never came together and really could have been two separate episodes for all the interaction or meaning they shared, save that each alone would have been too bare to fore a cohesive episode … Which is why they were slapped together in the first place.

What I’m getting at is that when we seek to flesh out our stories, or our characters, we can’t just grab an idea or a concept at random and dump it into the plot. Yes, we’ve read books or seen shows where this has been done, but recall how unconnected that felt. We don’t want our stories to feel like that. Therefore, we shouldn’t repeat these steps. This is poor fleshing out, simply taking any idea that comes into our head for a subplot or added length to our stories and dropping it in. Classic example: love triangles that come out of nowhere.

This is what happens when someone who is fleshing out a story is more interested in the length part of it than the—and this is going to sound odd—but the “flesh” part of it. A love triangle, a pointless B-plot that has nothing to do with the rest of the story … these are all examples of someone looking at the bones of a story that needed more and just reaching for the closest shovel to add material with.

But this isn’t how we should flesh out our stories or our characters. Not with no eye to detail and the unremarkable goal of adding what is essentially “filler.”

No, the proper way to do it is to work like Disney’s writers did with Tangled, and craft new material that properly layers itself over the skeleton of what’s there to enhance those bones.

As grim as these analogies sound, maybe this post would have been more suited for halloween. Oh well. To put it another way, simply shoveling material atop our bones is being a bad Frankenstein and simply grafting whatever we’ve got on hand atop the bones of our creature to make something that is “human shaped” but may in fact, be bones propped up by sixteen kidneys and a whole lot of carefully shaped lard (ewww).

By contrast, a story like Tangled took a deep look at the bones that were already there and asked “What story elements could we build over this that would retain the shape and function of the original bones, yet compliment them?” And so we got a story that combined other fairy-tale elements like the flower that was a drop of the sun, a very human horse (I still hold that said horse was in fact once human and basically the same concept as the Discworld Librarian), a thief rather than a prince (which is a bit of a bone change, but it works better with everything else that was built up), and so on and so forth.

Look, if you’ve not seen it, it is a lot of fun, and it’ll make a good challenge watch after having read this post. Go read the original plot for the Rapunzel story on the web somewhere and then watch Tangled with an eye towards what they added to flesh the story out.

Or subtracted! As noted above, there were a few bones that, once the full ‘body’ began coming together, didn’t fit quite as well, such as one protagonist being an actual prince. So they changed things up a bit, making him a “Prince of crime” who gets caught up in the whole story because he’s stealing a crown. They then fleshed that out so that every aspect of the theft tied into the greater story.

Everything that was added to the tale to flesh it out was done with the intent of building on the core themes. As was what they took away (and we’ll talk more on that in a moment). The goal wasn’t just to make the story longer, but to add new elements that complimented the core of what was there. So the writers took the character of Rapunzel and gave her a bunch of depth, fleshing her out into a character with goals and objectives. They did the same with the nameless witch, who became Mother Gothel (and one of Disney’s better villains, personally), the same with the Prince, who became Flynn the thief. Rapunzel kept the trademark super-long hair, but was actually given a reason for it to be super-long: Her hair held magic in fairy-tale style, and like Samson’s hair lost its power when cut.

Tangled took a basic idea then carefully worked to expand and build upward on what was there. Some things were cut or modified along the way, like the thorns or somewhat Sleeping Beauty angle from the original tale. But as a whole, what was added, what was fleshed out, was done to serve the core.

Which rule we should take into our own writing. No matter what sort of story we’re telling or, to be more precise, attempting to flesh out, we should always remember the bones of what we’re attempting to do, and make sure that the material we choose to flesh out compliments what we’ve got, rather than simply weighting it or worse, burying it.

Okay, so we’ve talked about the concepts here and the proper approach. But we’ve still not talked about the act itself. How does one go about fleshing out a story they’ve got in mind?

Well, you’ve got to start with the basics. By which I mean you need to understand the bones of what you have already. As in, you need to know what your planned story is going for. What are the themes? What are the plots? What are the goals of the characters? You need to be able to understand what you have first, so that you can decide what needs fleshing out. What you want to change. Maybe even what you’re comfortable removing if a new “fleshed out” idea won’t quite fit.

So if you want to flesh out a story of yours but don’t know where to start, then start by understanding the story you’ve got so far, even if it’s just an outline. What are the goals? What is the story supposed to achieve?

Once you’ve got that bit figured out, then you can start to look at elements that will enhance those aims. This can be something as straightforward and simple as new elements to the plot or maybe a new character, or as complex as a new subplot or even additions to the primary plot. But always with each of these, the goal should be to enhance the story, to build up the themes and ideas that it encompassed.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t add new themes. But they should compliment the ideas already present. Or maybe swap out one that only sort of added to the story for one that adds more.

Now, all this is fair, but I’m sure some of you are thinking “But wait, how do I know what to add?” And for that, I want to talk about negative space for a moment.

Negative space is a term used in art to describe the space around and between the subjects of an image. Think of the old optical illusion where two faces looking at one another form a vase in the negative space and you’ve got the right idea.

Well, we can learn to look at our stories the same way. To look at the “negative space” left by our plots and story bones. And from this negative space, by looking at what isn’t there, we can ask ourselves what we could add to things that would fill that space and create a more developed story.

This does take time. Often it’s not quite as easy as saying “Oh, well this will fit. That’s done then.” Above and in the openings to this post I used the term ‘weave” with regards to what we add, and this is still true. Once we’ve identified a possible way to fill the negative space in our story that we want to fill, we still need to weave it into the rest of what’s there in a way that feels natural.

This might mean making some cuts and adjustments. Fine-tuning. After all, going back to Disney’s Tangled, Flynn Rider’s character is a great addition to the story and serves as a fantastic vehicle for Rapunzel’s story. However, he’s interwoven in that her story also impacts his, the two working in tandem, and in addition, the concept of the prince from the original story’s bones needed to be cut entirely. Weaving Flynn into the story in a way that amplified and enhanced what was there did necessitate some cutting and trimming in order to have the story work at its strongest.

The same will likely be true for what you work on. In looking at how you can weave in some of your ideas and concepts, you may have to make concessions, tweaks, or outright cuts. It’s not a bad thing, though sometimes it might seem painful. At the same time however, we should be sure to examine our cuts from multiply angles and check the “negative space” to see if the end result is indeed living up to the aims we’ve set for it.

Now mostly we’ve talked about plot and story here, even if we’ve mentioned characters as a part of that process. But what about fleshing out a character instead of a plot? What if we just want more to the character we’ve got in a story? What can we do to flesh them out without adding a whole extra plotline to our story?

Well, the same guidelines apply. We can look at the negative space around our character and ask what would enhance the shape we see. In addition, we can look at both what we have and the negative space in relation to the plot we have. Can we interweave our character more into the plot by adding a new element to them (the character, not the plot)? Can this enhance the story as well as adding to the character?

Sands, can a cut to the character do that? If we remove some element of them, will it add to the story or even to their personal journey? Above I mentioned poorly thought-out love triangles? Well, a lot of stories add them because it’s the cheap way to add to a story and characters without much logic or excuse (love baby!).

Please don’t add a love triangle without good reason. We’re all tired of the poor ones.

Point being though, that we look at the negative space of our character and ask how we can weave that into what we’re looking at. Where it fits. Where it brings new additions that strengthen our story and characters.

And honestly? I feel like that’s the gist of it. Sure, there will be moments where you look at something and tweak it again, because it wasn’t quite working the way you’d hoped, but that’s the small stuff in execution, after you’ve worked out what you’re fleshing out and have moved on to the how (which ultimately just comes down to figuring out the process of slotting the new stuff in).

So I think at this point, we can call this topic covered. To retread what was stated above, fleshing out a story is when we take a look at the bones we’ve assembled, the core elements, themes, and characters, then look at the “negative space” and ask what we need to fill and how we can best do that in a way that enhances the core ideas, themes, characters, plot, etc. And that’s it!

Actually, one last bit of advice: Don’t seize on the first idea that comes along. Write it down, consider it, but it never hurts to juggle a few ideas for fleshing out our story. Sometimes it takes time for the best idea to develop. Sometimes the best idea will be the second, the third, or even a future amalgamation of all the ideas we came up with initially.

Let things breathe a bit. Give yourself some options. Then weave it in.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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