Ideas, Imagination and Creativity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about ideas and how they link into imagination and, ultimately, into the process we call ‘creativity’. It was kicked off when I bumped into an acquaintance who claimed that they had no (or few) ideas compared to others.

It’s a common question for writers: ‘Where do your ideas come from?’  The answer is, almost always, ‘Everywhere and anything’. In fact, it’s difficult to stop having ideas and the real problem is being able to focus on one (or a few) to turn them into a coherent work.  There si just so much around us: all you have to do is look, touch, listen, taste… and wonder.

So what happens? Even if we struggle, we all read about where ‘ideas’ come from, how they arise, and how to feed them, but what are the processes around them? How can we have more ideas? How can we turn those ideas into something tangible?

Lets be honest: I know that ideas can be a problem for some – the difference in perception have even been a contributory factor to jealousy marriages breaking down. I’ve also met people who saw themselves as ‘plants’ (ideas feed people in team-role consultancy speak) but who rarely came up with these ‘ideas’, usable or not. At other times, I’ve seen people who are unsure of themselves have loads of ideas that could be turned into something great.

Such thinking has been fueled by some adventurous (e.g. non-traditional!) and contributive teenage theatre I saw recently. The actors all contributed their own ideas to the performance and worked together to create (key word there) something different, even challenging from what was, frankly, a difficult script for a stageplay.  Their commitment to a highly intense yet minimalist performance was obvious.  They, and their director, had pooled their creativity and channelled it into something special.

It’s probably worth giving some of my reference points.

Creativity is a process. We may call someone a ‘creative’ or may point to an artist and say how ‘creative’ they are but, ultimately, we are judging them by the outputs of the creative process.  It’s what we see, hear, feel, taste, smell and even read of their output that causes us to class them as creative.  Furthermore, calling someone creative gives us no impression of what we feel about the results of their creativity: they may arouse nothing in us, everything or just a smidgen; we may enjoy or dislike their work. We assess someone as being creative independent of any personal judgement of their created works.

Ideas are the application of imagination to an experience.  It is a synthesis.  No, of course historical writers have not experienced the miseries they write about, but they do have an ‘experience’ (through research, reading another novel, watching a film, whatever) and apply their imagination to it.  This may not be a conscious process but, importantly for those who think they lack imagination, can be made into a conscious process (and from there, perhaps into an unconscious process).

There are some subcultural issues, here. Someone who comes up with loads of crazy ideas is often called ‘imaginative’, as if imagination is a subtly terrifying personal attribute. Even if the ideas are not crazy, those who have loads of them are also looked at askance: ‘control yourself’ is a phrase sometimes used, even ‘they’re in a world of their own’. To be imaginative is not to conform, it’s not to be normal.

But ideas can be generated. There are loads of examples or exercises to work on in the numerous books on writing. One of the more simple, but useful, exercises is to imagine a situation and work out – logically – what should happen from it.

‘Hah!’ I hear you say. ‘Imagine!’ But that ‘imagine’ can also be turned into a process. Think of two or three completely disparate categories of things, places or situations. A situation is walking a dog; a place is your home or a bank; whilst a thing can be a bus, a brick or even a book. It can be handy to pick up or generate a list of such things from the ‘net.

This can be considered ‘the interim idea’. Note that I don’t have a person, yet, simple because they come later. There is a variation that says to start with the character in the same fashion and then apply a weird character to a normal situation.

Having randomly picked, diced for or otherwise arrived at two or three of these, try and work out how they fit together. This can be as bizarre as you like – perhaps the more bizarre, the better. Only now add in a person and work out what they are doing to either make fit, force apart, be affected by or use the interim idea. Do it as logically as you can.

The key thing is: if you don’t like the character with the idea and it doesn’t fit, change it. The reason why a bizarre situation can help is that in justifying a logical reason such nonsense is part of a character means you end up transferring character elements onto the character. Already, the shape of the character is coming into being.

Now, how is the character going to get out or develop the idea? If it helps, replace one of the components with something completely different and make that the endpoint, what the character wants to get to.

A story is developing already. It may be that, at this point, the character is turning out to be a viewpoint character, but it may be that in being in the situation, another character – a hero, wise council, fool, whatever – is needed to extricate them, bounce off them, guide them (choose one) or otherwise help, assist or even keep them in. See how they would logically* interact with the first character given the situation – the more ridiculous, the more interesting, frankly.

Automatically, some plot elements should be coming in to accompany the character(s).

Having done that, now where? Well, that is up to you, the writer. Do you complete the whole framework as a story? If you wish. Have a look at some of the plot structures/meta-analyses and work out tags to accompany each plot point and character maps onto it. Then build in the connecters, bit by bit.

Then write. Or not – it’s up to you. The point is that a create process is being followed to develop a simple idea into something more. The more you try anything like this, the easier it becomes: ideas and characters fuse and separate, play off each other or stick together.

The thing is, you are in control. Sure, sometimes characters logically* start acting on their own or only saying a particular set of things – in which case, great. If they become a problem, you can change them, later, but once they start speaking it means their character is settling into something they can work with. Similarly with the situation, the plot, the aims and goals of the indviiduals and characters in your story. The more coherent* they are, the better.

And it’s the process that helps.

* ‘Logically‘ or ‘coherency‘ is only based on the character and situation, not necessarily and reductive, step-by-step process based on scientific analysis.**

** A little psychology does help, though, in explaining to yourself why a character may want to do something. 🙂


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