I confess. I am a random thinker. I love to see where my mind will take me if I suspend logic for a few minutes and give in to what Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement” —all those ideas we keep locked up for fear they are too rowdy, too unconventional, too messy for others to see.
Last week I wrote a blog post over at BobWP.com. It was all about how to generate blog post content faster with mind mapping. Later, in my twitter stream, I saw a tweet [email protected], a writer who said:
Really good stuff on using mind mapping from @JudyLeeDunn. I want to use this for fiction, too.
That got me thinking. I’ve used mind mapping for developing characters in a story—and even mapping out the story setting— but have never written a blog post on just how to do it. So here it is, for @EleanorPie and anyone else out there who wants another tool to make storytelling easier. And thank you, Eleanor, for inspiring this post.
What is a mind map, anyway?
Some people think of a mind map as a tree, but for me, it is more of a fluid, non-linear idea picture. The lines branching out from the main idea or home base lead to other interesting places, which may or may not become a part of your story. Even if you do not use every piece in your story, it helps you understand your characters, setting and plot better.
A mind map is a useful tool for generating new ideas and, after the creative part of the process, using logic to organize them. At its simplest, it is a map with side roads that lead to more interesting stuff.
You can now create digital mind maps with special software, but I still prefer the old-fashioned, longhand way. For me (and the research supports this), the ideas come faster when they flow directly from my brain, down my arm, and through my fingers in spatters of thick, gloppy ink.
But use the option that works best for you.
Why should you try mind mapping?
Among other things, mind mapping:
Stimulates both sides of your brain
Most of us are more proficient with one hemisphere of the brain than the other. The left brain’s strengths are logic, rhythm, lines and lists. The right brain is more skilled with imagination, images and whole-picture thinking. By drawing on the two of them, mind mapping helps in both the creating and organizing phases.
Helps you generate new ideas faster.
There is nothing as exhilarating as a mind mapping session that pulls dozens of ideas out of your brain and lays them all out in visual form.
Makes the natural connections of ideas easy to see.
You can immediately see the relationships between your ideas and which ones will naturally fit together in your story.
Helps you figure out gaps in your thinking and identify missing traits or foundational beliefs of a character.
For writers specifically, mind mapping is a great way to see your story, or pieces of your story, visually. I hang up my mind maps and refer to them constantly to be sure that my characters are acting true to form in every scene. If I build a character the reader can believe in, they will know immediately when that character is behaving oddly and they will wonder what in the world is wrong, which is exactly what I want them to do.
How to create a mind map to develop richer, more believable characters
Whether you are writing fiction or telling true stories, mind mapping helps you better understand what makes your characters tick, what they believe about life and how they stay true to what they believe (and, of course their inner conflicts when their behavior and actions contradict those core beliefs).
In my instance, as I wrote my memoir, it was particularly important that I dig deep, to explore and understand not only what made my family unique but how pain inflicted in one generation can be passed down with devastating consequences for the next generation.
As my editor, the amazing Victoria Mixon, said to me:
There are certain basic elements that all unhappy families share. The more you know about these common elements, the more accurately you’ll be able to draw your portrait in which these deep, abiding elements of pain blended with the personalities of these particular individuals in this particular time and place to create this unique family where this whole story was born.
She advised that I “think and write notes” on my family system as passed down through the generations (because this is a cross-generational memoir).
As usual, I found that her advice was spot on. After doing some research on unhappy, dysfunctional families, I moved on to the character development stage.
For this, mind mapping turned out to be the perfect tool. I created several mind maps for my characters: on things like physical characteristics, unique mannerisms, and belief systems. Mind mapping was also helpful in comparing and contrasting characters to see where the conflicts and friction might take place.
The best way to show mind mapping is to, well, show it. Below is a mind map for Mama, one character in my memoir, with a focus on her belief system and values. As you can see, I didn’t worry about perfect handwriting. It was more important to me to get those ideas down before they slipped out of my brain:
I started with “Mama” in the center circle and worked out from there, drawing lines to circles that represent the key elements in Mama’s belief system.
Let’s take “love,” for instance. Shooting out from it are the beliefs I brainstormed as I thought about Mama. I made a circle for “Conditionally Given,” which leads to another circle with “Based on Performance/Deeds” because Mama saw love as something that must be earned. Another line leads to a circle labeled “Not Openly Shared” because she had a hard time expressing deep feelings like love.
I followed the same path with Mama’s other core beliefs until I had a map that gave me a snapshot of her belief system: what her values were and how they played out in her life. I could have gone even farther out and made lines connected to circles that identified specific behaviors that were a result of these beliefs. As you can see, the possibilities are endless and the direction you take is up to you.
As you plan your story, your mind maps can become a treasure trove of ideas that will trigger your thinking. I pull mine out frequently when I get stuck or need to review a part of my story.
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
1. Turn a blank page sideways to give yourself enough room to branch out in all directions.
2. Write your general topic in the center of the paper and draw a circle around it. Think of it as your home base, the point from which you will take your side trips. This is where your thinking will start.
3. Work from the general topic in the center to the specific, with each line leading to a new circle.
4. To keep your thinking going, use single words or phrases—the shorter the better.
5. Continue this way with new circles until you have exhausted all your ideas.
6. Save your mind maps to revisit for a reminder of just how wonderfully complex and interesting your characters are.
What about you?
Have you tried mind mapping pieces of your characters?
How do you develop (and remember) your characters’ physical attributes, traits, and core beliefs?