How to Write a Novel: Turning an Idea into a Story

Every story begins with an idea, and nearly every idea begins with “What if?”

What if the toys in a child’s bedroom came to life when humans weren’t around?

What if dinosaurs and humans were trapped on the same island?

What if machines could transform into anthropomorphic alien robots?

No doubt, you’ve had a few ideas of your own, a lightning strike of inspiration. For most of us, this is how the writing process begins. The idea for my first novel came to me while I was sitting in class one day back in college. Another student’s cell phone rang and I thought, “What if a person could overhear someone else’s phone calls with their mind?” It was a what-if idea that would later become a story. What lies between is called a premise.

A premise is your story stated in one sentence. You can think of it as a sort of equation:  Character + plot + action or event = outcome. It is the very simplest version of your story that an audience or reader can understand.

For example, let’s look at the premise of Toy Story: “A favorite toy receives some competition, and his jealous actions force both toys to work together to find their way back home.” This is the entire film of Toy Story stated in one sentence. An audience can read this and get the general idea what the story is about; they can also decide whether or not this is a story they want to pay to see.

Note: This is not the same thing as a blurb or a tagline, or what you’d read on the back of a cover in a bookstore. Think of it more as a pitch; it’s your story condensed into its simplest form possible. For more examples of a premise, see my post Aquaman and Knowing What Story You’re Telling. 

Your premise is your story. It is your inspiration, and it should guide every decision you make during your months or years of writing as you design scenes and build your world. Now, let’s discuss how to make one. You may have noticed that the what-if idea for Toy Story stated above is very different from the premise, and it should be; the two are fundamentally different things. Many writers never make it past the idea stage because they don’t know how to develop their idea into a premise. Everybody and their dog has ideas, but there is a reason we’re not all bestselling authors. Nobody has a clue how to take a what-if question and pull from it a plot, cast of characters, event, and outcome. These things don’t just come out of a hat. This why having a premise is so crucial, as is taking the time to properly develop one. Your story isn’t a story without it.

So, let us begin. Take your idea, jot it down, and then put it away. I would give it two weeks. Let it stew in your mind, rolling around in your head while you go about your life. Don’t write any scenes, and don’t say anything to anyone. I do recommend speaking your idea out loud, but only alone, in your car or shower. Then, when the two weeks is up and your idea is still burning in your head, begin to explore possibilities.

Open yourself up to every possibility that could evolve from your idea. And I mean every possibility. Nothing is too stupid or outlandish here. I recommend taking a notebook and jotting down every single possibility that pops into your head concerning your idea. Many writers begin with a plot or actions, so expand on that. Do a bit of self-exploration. What interests you? What would you like to see a character do? What kind of events would you like them to face? Imagine some dialogue, lines they might say. If you begin with characters, flesh them out. What sorts of characters do you want to see? What kind of behaviors might they have? Build a personality. How would a character like yours respond to the events you envision happening to them? Write these all down, and then build a wish list. Order your possibilities in order of importance, with what you would most like to see at the top. This stage matters because this is how you avoid writing something generic, a knockoff of something that is already been done before. More importantly, it is how you build a story that is unique and will matter to you. You will want to write it and make it the best that it can be because it is your story.

From here, you construct your premise. You have a character, one who fits you and the idea you developed. You have an event, something that will change your character, and the basic bones of a plot. You have a logical outcome that results from your chosen event. Piece them together, and form a premise that captures it all. This may take a few drafts, or more than a few, but make it matter and make it change the way you feel.

Again, I’ll use my own novel as an example. I began with an idea: “What if a person could overhear someone else’s phone calls with their mind?” From there, I brainstormed possibilities. Could this person read texts, too, in their mind? Or emails? The government would probably take an interest in them. What would the government want them to do? How old is this person? Their age would certainly affect their reaction to the government’s interference. How would they use their powers? What is their race? What if they were a minority?

I consolidated all the possibilities into a wishlist that mattered to me, and then constructed a plot and a main character. I made the character a 12-13 year old male, because I wanted him to be relatable to my nephew. I decided that he would become a kind of superhero, because my nephew loved superheroes, and I then I made him Latino because I have Latin heritage. My main character was bullied in school for being strange and different, and I wanted to see him and one of the bullies forced to work together later in the story.

From all of these possibilities (and many, many more), I designed a premise: “When an accident gives a young boy superpowers, the government forces him to help fight a secret terrorist organization.” This became the first novel in my series, Spark. It was a story that could be familiar and outlandish at the same time, and excited me because it was something I was interested in. It was me, things deep within me that I wanted to see fleshed out on paper.

Now, you try it. You may already have an idea burning in the back of your mind. Jot it down, brainstorm the possibilities, and see if a story arises!

How to Write a Novel: Getting Started

So you want to write a novel.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that almost everyone has wished to or even intended at some point to write a book. Maybe it was a children’s book, a memoir, cookbook, romance, or young adult fantasy like Harry Potter. When I published my first novel in July of 2018, I couldn’t tell you how many of my friends and family told me things like, “You know, I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” or “I wrote a few chapters of a book once back in high school, but nothing ever came of it.” Each one of those people got a wistful look in their eye, like they were confiding a dream.

There’s a deep desire inside all of us to create. I believe it’s a fundamental piece of human nature. It’s why we come home from our day jobs and paint, or play guitar, or prepare a gourmet meal. It’s why we are film connoisseurs, amateur artists, or weekend chefs. Every single one of us has a hobby where we can exercise our creative energies. And, every one of us has experiences or dreams, things that make us who we are, that could be expressed in the form of a book. Now, I’m not a chef (though I am a big fan of Blue Apron, and it’s the closest I will ever get). I’m not a painter, or musician, but I am a writer. A fiction writer, with three completed novels, (two published and one soon to be released) and two more currently in progress. But I started out where you are: with a dream, and no absolutely clue how to make it happen.

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a writer. I loved any opportunity there was in school to write freely. When I was eight, a friend and I decided to white a fantasy book together that was a total rip-off of The Fellowship of the Ring, complete with maps, full color illustrations, and some live-action role play. It was a blast, some of my best memories. In high school, I took a creative writing class and managed to get a few chapters penned, but as the saying goes… nothing ever came of it. I dabbled in writing off and on college, and then life happened. You know what I’m talking about. Marriage, a baby, a career to do something with that university degree you earned; moving house, moving house again… it happens to all of us, and you know what it means. That creative hobby that means so much to you is inevitably put on the back burner.

How many of you told yourselves that you’d get back to it when things “settled down” or once the kids are out of school, or after you get that promotion or raise you’re waiting for? I would wager that many of you have this attitude toward writing that goddamned book. Maybe you think that you will have more time somewhere down the road, and sure, that’s probably true. Heck, we all will, after retirement. But I am here to tell you that you don’t have to wait. You can make that novel happen, and all you need is a dream.

Well… okay, you need a lot more than that. You need commitment, because writing a novel is insanely hard work. You need an idea, the “seed” of a story, and the right tools to tell that story in a compelling way. You will study stories like yours that have been told well, to see how it can be done, and then you will practice. And practice. And practice. And practice. Seriously. As my karate master says, “Anything can be done with practice.” That means sitting down every single day – no excuses – to write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, just do it. Commit to it. It will get better. Do it and eventually, you will have that completed novel.

It’s not easy. If it was, everyone who said they wanted to write a book one day would have done it. But if you really, really, really, want to make it happen, you can. I believe in you, and I want to help, which is what this blog is for. My website (shameless plug here) is where I coach writers like you to fulfill your dreams. I’m going to keep posting blog articles like this one to keep you motivated and to discuss helpful tips on the writing craft, but if you take nothing else away from this, I hope you begin to believe that you can write. I want you to try. Sit down, open that new Blank Document in Word, and just get writing. Let’s make that book happen.

Wreck-it-Ralph 2 and The Art of Foreshadowing

So, I saw Wreck-it Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet recently. Yeah, I know it’s been out for a while, but I’m slow with these things. Honestly, I just don’t go to the movies very often. Unless it’s a film that everyone’s going to be talking about or that excites me personally, I usually just wait until it’s out on Netflix or Prime. That’s what I did for this one. The trailer really didn’t look very promising, which is kind of sad because I actually enjoyed the first Wreck-it Ralph a lot. It came out in 2012, the same year as the first Avengers movie, Django Unchained, Prometheus, Hunger Games, Les MiserablesMen in Black 3, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and The Dark Night Rises. Yeah, that was a big year for movies, and I spent a lot of money at theaters, including to see Wreck-it Ralph.

Why? I was so intrigued by the idea presented in Wreck-it Ralph‘s trailer and loved the creative and fantastical way that technology and the worlds within video games were presented. Obviously, none of it was intended to be realistic, but it did follow its own rules consistently throughout the movie. The basic premise of the story is a villain (Ralph) of an 80s-era 8-bit arcade game grows tired of the role he plays in the game Fix-it Felix, Jr. He feels unappreciated and resented as the villain, so he leaves his game with the goal of winning a medal and thereby earning the respect of a hero. Ralph finds this opportunity in Hero’s Duty, a sci-fi game fraught with alien monsters. Ralph unwittingly releases one of these monsters into yet another game, and must work together with various other game characters to stop it before it destroys the entire world of the arcade.

It’s a very simple premise, but I found most of the film fascinating and engaging. And from a writing perspective, there was a lot more to enjoy. The noteworthy use of one specific storytelling tool is what I want to focus on in this post, and is what really sets the first Wreck-it Ralph apart from its sequel. That tool is foreshadowing. The first film does it well; the sequel doesn’t. So, let’s get into it.

Foreshadowing is a literary device used by an author to set the stage for the story to unfold or hint at something soon to come. In Wreck-it Ralph, for example, we have the early mention of Turbo and what “going Turbo” means long before the Big Reveal; the beacon used to lure and destroy the Cy-bugs; Calhoun explaining what could happen if a Cy-bug escapes the game of Hero’s Duty; a very early-on PSA cautioning characters to stay safe outside their games because “if you die outside your game, you die for real;” Fix-it Felix’s ability to fix things, just to name a few. In fact, everything important to the plot was mentioned at some point beforehand in the movie. Writers need to understand this concept and be able to use it well, because it guides the audience/readers to a logical and satisfying conclusion of the story.

As a writer, you want to respect your readers as active participants in the story, not passive recipients. You don’t tell them, “X happened, then Y happened.” Instead, leave them hints; give them information along the way so that they can begin to piece the plot together themselves. Drop X in the story so that when it appears again during Y the audience immediately recognizes its importance to the story. I’m not saying give them everything or let them “see behind the curtain,” but give your readers some credit. A big key to the art of foreshadowing is knowing how much to reveal, and how much to withhold. Your reader might not know why  X has just come into the story yet, but they will know it matters and begin guessing what part it will play in the plot later on.

You can’t talk about foreshadowing without talking about JK Rowling. The Harry Potter series contains so many masterful examples of foreshadowing done well, too many to discuss in one post, so I’ll just use one. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, the stone in question appears long before its importance becomes clear. We first see it when Hagrid fetches it from the vault in Gringotts bank during the first act of the story. We don’t know what it is or what it does, but we know that it’s important because it was locked in a vault and Hagrid was very secretive about it. When Hermione is giving some exposition about Nicolas Flamel and the Elixir of Life, she mentions the Sorcerer’s Stone, which will make the drinker of the elixir immortal. At this point, the reader does not yet have enough information to make a definite connection between the stone from the bank and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but when the characters eventually do and the plot kicks off, the reader feels satisfied, not cheated. For a story to piece together well, each piece should be introduced and be familiar to the reader before the plot demands their use. 

In Wreck-it Ralph, everything important to the climax of the story had been foreshadowed earlier in the film. The danger of the Cy-bugs, the Diet Coke volcano, Turbo’s greed, Vanellope’s teleportation powers – all of it was introduced and addressed in advance so the final conflict feels like a recipe coming together, not a crapshoot. Vanellope’s powers, for instance, play heavily into the main conflict. They are introduced when she meets Ralph, then discussed by King Candy later on when he explains to Ralph what a glitch is and why Vanellope can’t participate in the race. Her powers are implied to be a problem when she practices racing on the makeshift track she and Ralph built, but then prove to be an advantage in the final race. The way her glitching powers can extend to things that she touches is demonstrated in the first act of the film when she touches Taffyta, and this becomes the way that King Candy is revealed as Turbo. The audience is not distracted during the final conflict trying to keep up with all of this information, because it was introduced along the way and digested; all they have to do is enjoy seeing it all unfold.

Now, let’s talk about the sequel.

Ralph Breaks the Internet had a lot of problems; I know most people will talk about how it was just a shameless attempt to grab cash with product placements like Facebook and YouTube, and that might be true, but I won’t get into that. I just want to talk about the film’s climax. The main conflict arises when Ralph is worried that Vanellope will abandon him for the game Slaughter Race, so he decides to release a virus that will slow down the cars so Vanellope will get bored of the game and come home. The idea of a virus being able to slow down a race was introduced exactly once before it became part of the final conflict. When? During the first five minutes of the film, when Ralph and Vanellope are goofing around in Tron. The virus was mentioned in passing by Vanellope, a very forgettable line dropped during the opening montage. When Ralph decides to use a virus to slow down Slaughter Race, maybe some audience members will remember that passing mention, but to most it will feel abrupt, out of left field. Not at all like a logical advancement of the plot. And Ralph doesn’t even use that “type” of virus in the end; when he goes shopping for viruses, he is given a creepy, monster-like insecurity virus that is said to scan, copy, and distribute insecurities, and he is told not to let it escape into the rest of the internet. This is obviously supposed to be bad, but the audience doesn’t know why and can’t guess what will happen if it does. All of this occurs in the last twenty minutes of the film, and the next scene begins the final conflict. The virus begins to wreak havoc, but the audience doesn’t have enough information to understand what is happening or predict how the rest of the plot will play out. This leads to a very unsatisfying resolution that feels disconnected from the previous events of the film.

Foreshadowing, done well, can draw your readers and audience in and encourage them to become active participants in the story. They will seize information and wonder how it will be used to pull the plot together. The final conflict, when it happens, will feel supported on a foundation of established facts, not tossed together like an afterthought. Treat your readers well; they deserve it.

Dr Strange and Character Motivation

If you’re writing a story, you need a premise.

In an earlier post, I discussed how to create and develop a premise for a good story. A premise is basically your story, beginning to end, condensed into one sentence. I used examples from Aquaman, Black Panther, and Star Wars. I also stressed the importance of knowing what your story is really about, which is a separate thing from the premise. The premise is for the reader – a very short synopsis of the tale being told. What it’s really about, the core of the story, is for you the writer. It’s a reminder of the message, the purpose of the story, that will shake your readers and change your life.

Now, we move on to character. Once you know what your story is about, you have to create a character to tell it. Really, you need a hero. Your hero is the most important character of the story, but he is not the only character that matters. All your characters – if they are great characters – help define your hero in some shape or form. They matter. They, through their interactions with the hero, give us a better picture of who the hero is and why he does what he does. This will be discussed more in later posts, so for now we’ll just focus on the hero and how the story is told through him.

There are a lot of facets to a hero that work to help him drive the story. First, he must be relatable and the audience must be able to identify with him. What does that mean? Most writers have a very, very shallow definition of these terms, and think it means that readers must be able to see themselves in the hero. Maybe he looks like they do, or maybe he’s put-upon or has a job or background they might be familiar with. That’s not what those terms mean at all. Art is universal, and those qualities are not. A hero is relatable or can be ‘identified with’ through his wants and needs. What does your hero want, and what does he need? These two things are different, and both work to drive the story.

Your hero begins the story wanting something. As the title of this post suggests, I’ll use the example of Dr. Strange. Our hero in this story, Dr. Stephen Strange, has been in an accident that permanently damages his hands and ends his career as a surgeon. His career was his life and the source of his sense of self, so he spends the first act spiraling into an existential crisis and wants his hands to be restored. That’s really where the story begins, when he sets off to find a way to repair his hands.

The audience, however, has seen who Dr. Strange is at the beginning of the story (through the way he interacts with the other characters), and knows that what Dr. Strange wants isn’t really what he needs. We know that healing his hands isn’t going to fulfill him or make him into the kind of person that the message of the story says he needs to be. The story requires that he become a superhero, a master of magic, a leader and protector of the innocent; healing his hands and resuming his life as a surgeon and egotistical pathological loner certainly isn’t going to accomplish that. So this is the point where the wants and needs of the hero diverge.

When a hero sets off on his journey, he doesn’t know the true reason for doing it. He has a goal that gets him started on his quest, but is generally ignorant of his true motive, the real thing that’s going to make his life better or shape him into the person he must become. A shallow character would be one that wants something, then goes out and gets it. A deep, powerful character with an impact on the story is one that has a need and experiences a character change because of it. The moment where your hero comes face-to-face with his need and abandons his want should result in him taking a new action. The path of the story has changed; now we’re on the real quest. Your character is on the way to becoming a new person.

The path of your hero’s character development reflects a shift from your character chasing his want to accepting his need, then becoming someone fundamentally different because of it. This is not a sudden thing; it’s been taking place throughout the whole story. Let’s look at Dr. Strange again: what was Stephen Strange’s need? Answer: to set aside his ego and learn that winning wasn’t everything. Yeah, really. He had an obsession with winning, remember that? And at the story’s climax he learned that to beat Dormammu he had to lose, again and again and again. He did realize in the end that he was hurting other people because of his ego and pushing away the ones that mattered most to him, and changed in order to be more selfless and help others instead.

Character needs can be moral or psychological. Maybe your hero is shy, cowardly, and finds comfort in mediocrity but they need to become a brave, daring leader. That would be psychological need. Maybe your hero starts off as aloof and miserly and needs to learn generosity and empathy; that could be a moral need. The very best needs are the ones that directly affect other characters; if your character is hurting the people around him because of his need then recognizes and changes it, your character development could be all the more powerful. Dr. Strange experienced both: his psychological need was to get over seeing his damaged hands as an impediment or excuse. His moral need was learning humility. That moment at the climax of the story was defined by Dr. Strange taking a new action; he took charge and became a leader, he shifted the tides of the battle and abandoned his desire for healing his hands altogether.

According to John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, character change occurs when the hero recognizes that their need and want were not the same thing, and this is called self-revelation. Your hero has gained a new understanding of himself. While the character development happens throughout the course of the story, the moment of self-revelation is sudden. It’s dramatic. It’s got maximum emotional impact. It’s new information – your hero is seeing himself in a new light, and maybe feels remorse for how he’s hurt others in the past. He’s seen the truth. And, to change the course of your story, he takes a new action.

To set this up, your hero must be ignorant of his need. He must believe a lie about himself or his world, and it must be hurting himself or others in some very real, tangible way. Dr. Strange believed that his career and winning were everything; this lie hurt him because it prevented him from being a kind and generous person and it hurt others because… well, for the same reason. When the moment of self-revelation happens, it should change the course of the story and cut the hero to his core, creating a burst of emotion as the hero and audience see the lie for what it is.

Your character is not a fixed, flat, complete person (or shouldn’t be), and the scope of change possible is up to you. It can be dramatic or small – you set it up to fit the story you want to tell. The possibilities are endless. But remember, true character change is what drives your story and is a process – not a switch to flip. Your character’s wants and needs work together to move your story to completion and toward a satisfying end.

Aquaman and Knowing What Story You’re Telling

Aquaman could have been awesome… but it wasn’t. From a writing standpoint, it felt like a movie that didn’t really know what story it was trying to tell, and the result was a chaotic, fast-paced, schizophrenic mess.

The story idea itself wasn’t bad; in fact, it was an ancient and iconic one. The Rightful Heir trope has been used and reused again and again throughout story-telling history, from the tales of King Arthur and Hamlet, to The Lord of the Rings and movies like Thor and Black Panther. It’s a very, very old story concept that is common to literally hundreds of fantasy films and books. And the great thing is, it’s withstood the test of time. It’s a really awesome, idealistic, hopeful storytelling concept that many people love, and I’m not here to bash that. The Aquaman film also relied heavily on the Chosen One trope, another classic that comes in many flavors, and this film decided to use all of them. It had “He Will Unite Our Peoples” (like Braveheart), “Only [the Chosen One] Can Wield This Weapon” (King Arthur again) and “This Is a Power Only [the Chosen One] Would Have” (The Matrix). Besides these, we also had a revenge subplot, a scavenger hunt for a magical MacGuffin, and a “pollution is bad” aesop. This movie was trying so hard to hit every subtrope possible that it was actually painful, and the result was a story that was cliche on multiple levels.

The trouble with Aquaman is, again, that it didn’t really know what kind of story it was telling, and I’ll discuss what I mean by that later on. This is a post about writing, and what I want to discuss here is how to avoid the cliche pitfall. How do you use a classic idea without writing a story that comes off as generic or derivative?

To write something truly unique, you must first understand your premise. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby describes a premise as, “Your entire story condensed to a single sentence.” Stripped down to its barest bones, what is your story about? A good premise is crucial because it acts as the baseline, the foundation that everything else is built upon and developed into an actual story. For Aquaman, we could say the premise is this: “The firstborn son of an Atlantean queen raised on land returns to his homeworld to unite his people and prevent a devastating war.” That pretty much sums up the story of this film in a nutshell.

Because the premise is your story, all other ideas for the story must serve the premise. Any time a new idea pops in your head, you must ask yourself “Does this achieve the goal I set out to achieve with this premise?” Let’s take Black Panther as an example. The premise of Black Panther could be stated like this: “When the son of an exiled prince returns to challenge the throne, the current ruler must prove his worthiness by uniting the tribal clans.” If T’Challa at some point learned that he was a wizard and went off to boarding school, that would certainly be interesting and entertaining, but would likely not serve the premise.

You may also note that Black Panther used the classic Rightful Heir trope, but with a twist: the current ruler was doing just fine, all things considered, and the challenger is the story’s antagonist. That kind of spin on an old trope is exactly what you might look for in the next stage of designing your story: finding its core. The core of the story is what makes all the bits and pieces flow together. It’s the internal logic, the steel girders underlying the pretty tapestry that makes up your scenes. Your readers or viewers won’t see it, but it will hold the entire piece together. To find the core of your story, you must take your premise and strip it down even further.

I really cannot stress enough how important this process is for your story. It is what separates a standard, generic story from something truly unique and effective. It’s the essence, the message that shapes the story from start to finish. To find it, ask yourself, “What is my story really about?” For Black Panther, you could say the real story being told was this: “A good king will learn to be a great one when he is dethroned and his nation begins to fall apart.” Now, some might disagree with me and say this is a completely subjective process of interpretation, and they’d be right. The core of your story is what you get to decide as the writer. Indeed, a story’s core is not really for the readers or viewers, but for the writer writing it. Confused? Let me give you another example.

When viewing Star Wars for the first time, you might think it’s the story of a farm boy who learns he’s the son of a legendary member of a mystical order of space knights and sets out to claim his legacy by saving the galaxy, and you’d be correct. But if you were writing Star Wars, you might actually be telling a story like this: “a boy learns what his legendary father’s true legacy is, and sets out not to fulfill it.” Now that sounds like something really compelling, and leaves a lot of room for expansion. How you tell that story is completely up to you – it could be a space opera, a fantasy, the story of a Mafia crime family – in whatever format you choose. When you are telling a story with that core as your guiding inspiration, the particulars don’t really matter so long as they serve that purpose.

So what’s the core of the Aquaman film? What is that movie really about? Is it the story of a man split between two worlds who answers the call to save them both? Is it the quest of a man to uncover a long-lost relic and continue his bloodline’s legacy? Or is it a tale of two estranged brothers learning to set aside their differences and rule a nation peacefully? When I said that Aquaman didn’t know what story it was telling, I really meant that it was trying to tell all of these stories at once. It started off as a classic Rags to Royalty type of plot with a reluctant hero, then introduced a revenge story with Black Manta that was never resolved, and then there was a crazy scavenger hunt across the world to find King Atlan’s trident (Trident of Neptune?) that may or may not have been necessary to unite all the kingdoms of Atlantis and stop a war with the surface-dwellers motivated by… pollution?

And in the middle of all that, what did Arthur really learn? He learned that he was worthy to become king, sure, but what does that mean in the world of this story? Does “being worthy” mean being reluctant, refusing the call at every turn? Does it mean being pure of heart? I mean, Arthur was a drunk and boisterous brawler – does that count? And more importantly, why was Orm not worthy? Because he was sneaky and gave Black Manta a cool suit? Because he disliked pollution? Or maybe it was because he was uptight and not as funny as Arthur? I’m not judging whatever message the movie actually was trying to send, but I am saying that as a writer, you have to know what the core of your story is, and clear away all the distractions; whatever remains should shape your story into a single unit that is both compelling and effective.

The core of your story is for you, and should drive every decision you make as you craft your novel, screenplay, or stage play. With a solid premise as your foundation, everything else in your tale will make sense and your audience will feel both engaged and fulfilled.

Deadpool and the Character of Cowardice


Welcome to my writing blog! This will be the first of a series of posts where I use popular films to discuss literary devices. This particular post will be about characterization. As an author, I am always searching for ways to fill out my characters, as characters most often drive the story, and I want to help you develop your own characters in believable ways.

So, here we go.

Deadpool 2 was… disappointing.

I’m not going to touch the over-the-top bathos, irreverent humor, or black comedy gore (definitely don’t take the kids to see this movie).  All of that is pretty standard in a Deadpool story. No, my issue was with Deadpool himself. As a character, I felt that he left much to be desired. He just… well, he didn’t make sense. His motivations were ill-defined and growth was practically non-existent. For a deeply flawed hero, he was seriously lacking in actual character flaws. And, yeah, to some degree, lack of direction is par for the course with Deadpool, the fourth-wall-breaking Merc with the Mouth who’s basically a walking parody. And please don’t misunderstand me – I thoroughly enjoyed Deadpool 1 and his comic appearances. With that said, I think it’s possible to do his character type right, and I would like to explain how. By the end, I’ll even propose how to do his attempted martyrdom in the film’s finale so that it lands with maximum impact.

Now, in this post I am going to talk only about movie Deadpool. I know that comic Deadpool’s character and motivations vary with the writers (and he is hilariously aware of this). I am specifically and only talking about the character portrayed in the movies, who he is and what is motivations are as the movie has portrayed it. Okay? Okay.

First off, every character needs a goal (WHAT do they want?) and a motivation (WHY do they do what they do?)  In his first movie, Deadpool’s motivation was twofold: revenge for what Ajax did to him, and to get his face back. Well, threefold, because he did mention that he also wanted to make sure that no one else became a victim of Ajax’s torture and experiments.

Each character also needs a flaw, something they have to overcome to achieve their goal, learn a lesson or become a better hero – in essence, achieve character growth. In Deadpool 1, it was vanity. Wade was very proud of his looks before Ajax’s experiments heavily scarred his face and he was embarrassed to let his fiancee Vanessa see him with his scars. His goal, then, for the majority of the movie was to force Ajax to fix his face. His flaw (vanity) got in the way of his character growth – he stayed away from Vanessa, failing to warn her about Ajax, and refused to believe that anyone could love him with his new looks. In the end, after learning that Ajax could not fix it, he had to come to terms with his appearance and the fact that Vanessa loves him anyway.

What was his motivation in Deadpool 2? What did he want? Do you know? It actually took me a long time to figure it out, because it was so poorly defined. His goal for the entire movie, stated by him, is that he wants to die to join her in death. He tries numerous times to accomplish this, even to the point of trying to get a child to kill him. Ugh.

So what is his motivation then? WHY did he chase after this goal? You could say love, but love doesn’t drive people to kill themselves. His goal is a selfish one, which is why Vanessa keeps sending him back. Even after he’s done what she asked him to by getting his “heart in the right place,” in the end she still sends him back because he still has work to do, being a hero. His goal to end his life wasn’t driven by his motivation (love), it was driven by his flaw which is… can you guess? It’s fear.

You see, Deadpool is an antihero. Some would call him a Lovable Rogue, a person who breaks the law, but is nice and charming enough that the audience still roots for them. Antiheroes come in a variety of flavors, from mild (some incarnations of Robin Hood), medium (Han Solo, Jack Sparrow) to dark (Deadpool, John Constantine). They might kill people, but certainly not anyone you know or care about, or maybe only bad guys. Wade himself says that he’s not a hero, just a bad guy who gets paid to beat up worse guys. Now, my assessment is that every antihero – every single one of them – is, deep down, a coward. Take Han Solo, for example. At first, he is selfish, has committed numerous acts of theft and fraud, and is interested only in saving his own skin (and Chewie’s) and wants no part in helping Luke stop the Empire. He is neutral for the sake of his own survival. But as the trilogy goes on, he becomes fiercely protective of Luke, even risking his own life to save him, and becomes a pivotal member of the rebellion. What flaw does Han have to overcome? Cowardice. It kept him from becoming his best self, and Luke even calls him out on it. Once he overcame it, he became a true hero.

Wade’s flaw in Deadpool 1 was a weak one. It wasn’t vanity that kept him from going back to Vanessa, it was fear. He was a special ops soldier and mercenary, but deep down he was always a coward. It’s why he was afraid to die of cancer in Deadpool 1 (and subsequently joined Ajax’s experiment), and why he wants to die in Deadpool 2 – he’s afraid of living forever without Vanessa. It’s why he won’t join the X-men and become a fully-fledged superhero. Cowardice (that is, selfish fear, not self-preservation) is the flaw that keeps preventing him from becoming his best self, and what drives him to his goal of ending his life. He may have been motivated by love, but cowardice got in the way. With cowardice as his flaw, it makes complete sense in this instance, from a writing standpoint, for Vanessa to die. Wade hasn’t yet become a hero who relies on his own courage without her, so this is something he must learn to do.

If the writers of Deadpool 1 and 2 had chosen cowardice as Wade’s fundamental flaw, I think both movies could have been so much better. It’s a much deeper and more challenging flaw to overcome, and has a much bigger payoff in the end if the hero does finally overcome it. In addition, more audience members can relate to a hero flawed with fear. Not everyone knows what it’s like to lose your good looks and becoming horrifically scarred (for those that do, I’m sure it’s awful), but fear is something that everyone can relate to. Whether it’s being afraid of living without your loved ones, or being afraid that they won’t love you because of how you’ve changed, or being afraid to reach for your potential, fear is a powerful storytelling tool, and one I wish more writers would reach for.

Now, about that heroic sacrifice in Deadpool 2‘s finale. If cowardice had been Wade’s flaw from the very beginning, and the audience fully understood that he was trying to kill himself not because of some noble(ish) desire to give Vanessa justice, or love, but out of selfish fear – not wanting to continue living because he’s afraid, then the audience will really, really not want him to do it. We’ll know that it’s not the right course of action, that it’s not what Vanessa would want him to do, and we’ll become really concerned and scared when it seems that he’s successful. The audience will breathe a sigh of relief when Cable saves him, because we know that Wade has learned his lesson, but still has growth left to do. He’s got a future, and he’s learning to live it. A two-part character arc from Deadpool 1 would have come full circle.

And in case you’re wondering, no. I would certainly not have brought Vanessa back in the stinger. I’m not saying that I don’t want her to come back, just that I don’t want Wade to be the one to bring her back.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do you think? Let me know in the comments, and if you have any character suggestions for the next post.