Category Archives: Block Breaking

Getting around writer’s block.

Block Breaking: Historian’s Eye

Block Bridge

My degree is in history.  I’ve always enjoyed it.  From looking at the pictures in my dad’s Civil War book as a kid to my final college paper detailing the modernization of the Japanese Military following the Meiji Restoration, I am fascinated by the story of humanity and its progress and trials.

I believe it is because of my Historical background that I enjoy books (and games) that have expanded back stories and histories, and I do the same with my own projects.  Every character has a background that I may never bring up.  Every location has a history.  It just comes naturally to me to pause and think for ten seconds, if only to create in my mind a hidden aspect of the story.

An unintended result of this is what I call the Historian’s Eye, a Block Breaking technique that I started using when I began working on novel-length projects.  It allows me to take a step back from my creative side and bring up my inner historian.

The Block:

The Block I commonly use this process with has to do with conflict between characters.  The protagonist is opposing someone (or several someones), but the opponents are too simple.  I need to create a realistic situation with realistic opponents for the character to face.

The Goal:

The goal is to create enough details that an interesting conflict can be written and resolved.

How it Works:

Imagine you a historian who is writing about the situation you are currently stuck on.  Around you are interviews with participants, official records, maps, everything a historian needs to disappear into a library for days on end.  You want to impress your reader with as much information as you can.

Step 1 – The Conflict

This step involves the conflict itself.  Look at the conflict and make a list:

  1. What is the conflict?: Perhaps it is a military battle or a struggle for an academic award.  Try to define it as something other than a part of the plot for one character.
  2. Who is participating in the conflict?: This is more specific than saying ‘soldiers’ or ‘students’.  This is a list of the people involved.  This may not get specific enough to list every individual, but you can at least get numbers and consider the key players involved.  This list does not include just the direct participants, but can includes superior or junior members of a team or third party participants (the contest judge, civilians on a battlefield, etc).
  3. How does the conflict end?: Every conflict has an end.  It could be a subtle realization that the enemy is no longer attacking or that moment when the judges declare one student the winner.  But that ending is the goal for the participants.

Step 2 – The Big Picture

As a historian, my first step in any project was to look at the big picture.  No one operates in a vacuum and no event lacks consequences.  Everything fits together somehow.  So step back and consider the tapestry.   This could be very simple or it could require numerous notes and graphs, but the point is to consider the context of the block within the story and the world at large, and who has an interest in the outcome.

Some examples:

  • Military battles have politicians and generals directing resources to or away from the battlefield.  The character may have too much help, or too little.
  • Suitors of a princess will have friends and family members spreading rumors to help and hurt.
  • Scientific programs competing for funding may attract the attention of corporate or political patrons, for good ro bad.

Step 3 – The Characters

With the Big Picture and Conflict mapped out,  look at the Characters involved.  List out a series of question and answers for each character.  Some questions I might ask are:

  • Why is the character here?
  • What is the character’s goals in this conflict? Are they different from the other characters’?
  • How has the character been prepared for this conflict?
  • Who will help the character?  Will the character ask for that help?
  • Is the character willing to cheat?

The nature of the questions will change depending on the conflict being considered.  A military conflict will involve significantly different questions than a science fair.  But as a historian, the goals and decisions of an individual are an important part of the process.  As a writer, the friction between the characters is an important part of the story.

Part of this step is to consider the conflict from the eyes of each character.   A true historian looks as the subject from all sides, and this case is no exception.  Knowing what the other people are trying to accomplish will help define the course of the conflict for the character, and what their reactions will be when the character acts in her own best interests.  Someone is going to lose, but no one wants to.

Leaving the Historian

By now you should have a fair amount of material to fleshes out the conflict.  The character’s opponent is no longer a faceless enemy, but is now a character with his own motivations, resources and goals; the victory is a consequence of choices and actions, not of plot.  Both a historian and a fiction writer would begin to describe the conflict, bringing the story to life.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences with the Historian’s Eye.

Thank you for reading!