I am capable of dreaming up interesting settings and even placing things in a world, but I have trouble dreaming up characters and plot. Example: my first aborted attempt at a steampunk story ended when I realized I had literally asked for help coming up with other steampunk-y tropes to fit in to my story. I was creating a screensaver, not a story.

Meanwhile I read amazing, compelling, and driven stories that keep me thinking about them long after I finish. These stories have strong characters and plot. The characters act naturally and convincingly, and the plots are character-driven, not setting driven. I want to be able to write a story like these.

I know there are a million and one variations on "How do I write a good story?" My specific question is "How do I imagine characters and plots the way I can imagine settings?"

For context, I'm trying to write an adventure delivery quest: a character discovers an ancient, terrible weapon, and has to take it to be destroyed (very Fellowship of the Rings, I know.)

  • 1
    Can you give an example of one of the settings you were able to imagine? It could help give you more focused advice. Commented May 28, 2017 at 8:04
  • Currently, there's a large desert world sparsely populated with nomads and scavengers. The wastelands are peppered with the ruins of an ancient space battle from a thousand years ago. The hero is a low-life scavenger who finds an artefact and realizes it has the potential to destroy everything.
    – whiterook6
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 17:52
  • not relavent to actual question but this sounds like LOTR with star wars background. lol!
    – Dev
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 11:12

4 Answers 4


At the heart of every story (or most stories, anyway) is a character arc, and in the center of a character arc is a decision, a hard decision, a decision that will cost the character something valuable, that will make them face the question of what sort of person they are or want to be.

Plot exists to bring the character to that moment of decision and to show what happens as a result of the decision they make.

That decision, therefore, is not a bad place to begin thinking about character and plot. One way into this is simply to ask yourself, what would it be like to have to choose between X and Y.

There are two key things about that choice. First, it must cost the character something. Second, the character must not want to make that choice.

So then your character development begins with, why is this choice hard, and why does the character resist making it. And your plot development begins with, what series of events will bring the character to the point where they have to make that choice, and what will be the consequence for them of making it.

Stories can, of course, be more complex than this makes it sound. Frodo has many points of choice in LOTR, and (lest we forget) chooses wrongly in the final crisis. There is a huge amount of other stuff going on, and other characters have their own arcs and their own choices. But that is the bones of the thing. It is a place to start. Not, certainly, the only place to start. But it may give you some insight into who you need your characters to be and what your plot needs to put them through.


My high school teacher gave us some writing assignments that forced us to focus on short scenes. She would give us a picture (usually of a painting) where you could see one person, or more, halfway through an action. Then we simply had to imagine who that person was and what was happening. This technique produced some interesting short stories and helped us to think about the motivations of the character we were just meeting. I think it might help you focus on plot and character and get the hang of it.

For example, take this painting by Norman Rockwell. Just look at it and start writing the words that fit the scene. Let the characters, their wishes and their emotions bring forth the plot: does the fight lead any of the characters to rethink their marriage?

Or this one by William Mulready. What could be in that letter? What will the woman do in response to it?

Personally, I think it's best to do these exercises with paintings as the figures are imagined. Working with photos can lead one to focus on the real story and real people. But if you prefer photos, then by all means. I do advise to choose images that allow the story to have action (in the sense there is a situation that requires the character to act, rather than sit back and reflect).

Most paintings I use are a bit dated (not to say a lot), but sometimes, if we swap the clothes for modern ones and swap, say, the letter for a tablet (email), you can make the situation contemporary. And there are also paintings that refer to our modern age, like this one by Robert Lenkiewicz. But you can also take the painting and give it a steampunk or fantasy feel by imagining different clothes. Paintings like this one by Robert Griffing always give me a sense of adventure.

Or you can just pick an adventure themed painting like this one by Jakub Rozalski.

Remember the key thing about this exercise is to have one person (or more) in the middle of action. Don't start with setting but with dialogue or action and let the setting become clear as the plot progresses. Some images will only allow for a short story, but some can grow into long novels if you let them.

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    This is actually a really good exercise - I remember doing similar things in a number of classes both at school and beyond
    – user18397
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 23:18

I had the same problem when I was a kid, and I solved it by understanding the concept of Action.

In your stories you have people (characters). It's not a story until they DO something, and this something changes something else.

So put a guy in your amazing setting, and let something happen to him, or make him do something. And remember that stories are built on but. Rick is a skilled scavenger, but one day he gets arrested by the corporation. Jenny wants to become a jet pilot but she gets kicked out of the academy. B3X7 is a dutiful droid, but it discovers to have feelings.


We write best what we love most. For me, I love people and pay a lot of attention to them, but not a lot of attention to places and things, so my characters are strong, but my settings and descriptions are weak.

Since you have the opposite problem, I'd suggest spending some concentrated time observing people closely, talking to them, listening to their stories, and trying to understand them at a deep level --both strangers and friends. After doing that for a while, your characters should start to become deeper and richer.

As far as plots, reading a lot of myths and folk and fairy tales from all around the world is a good way to get a feel for plot at the most basic, essential level.

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