Last week we talked about place and the types of characters that play well in that sort of story.
Today we’re going to talk about a story built around an idea.
The foundation of an “idea” story is pretty simple. A problem is presented at the beginning, the main character or characters devise a plan and the reader is completed to continue reading to find out how they solve it. Something inevitably goes wrong, but the story isn’t over until the problem is solved. Mysteries, suspense, police procedurals, heist stories—all of these follow an idea story structure.
How much do you need to develop your characters for an “idea” based story?
Most characters in idea bases stories have a flat character arc. Flat character arcs don’t focus on character growth or change. I discuss character arcs at length in The Basic Character Creation Workbook, but this is the sort of story that the flat arc is perfect for.
Agatha Christie’s “locked room” mysteries are the best example of how minimally developed characters can still produce an interesting story. Each character is a fixed archetype with a few quirks to make them interesting and to make them legitimate suspects of the crime.
Modern detective stories tend to have a bit more character development and the detective’s personality tends to dive the narrative. However, these characters are rarely ever change. All of the eccentricities remain in tact and become part of the mystery. The reader stays interested because they want to discover why the character is so horrible or broken how he became that way. A good mystery, thriller, or suspense writer can pick that character apart bit by bit over several books. In fact, the lack of change in these characters allows the reader to use the same characters over and over again.
Idea stories exist in other genres as well in a larger, more intentional way.
Science Fiction frequently flirts with ideas about politics, class, and race. Women’s fiction challenges societal expectations and patriarchal ideas. Those characters tend to remain fixed as well.
There is a misconception, however, that ideas stories have “bad” characterization. I don’t believe that’s true. The characters in an idea story have at the right amount of development for that kind of story.
What books have you read or written that emphasize and center an idea? I’ve written one called The Truth of Things. Tell me about yours!