Developing Ideas the Social Work Way

Figuring out a new idea is a bearcat sometimes. You have a vision of some kind: a character, an event, some kind of high-stakes moment, and somehow you have to take that single idea and weave it into a full-on story tapestry that has enough power to become a real live book. The enormity of trying to create this thing can be staggering sometimes. As you may or may not know, my education is in social work – fun fact – and so many times when I’m plotting or drafting, I find that I use some of the theories and ways of thinking about the world I learned in school to think about my novel.

Here are three ways of thinking that might help you wrestle your next idea beast and tame it until it allows itself to be written.

1) Systems thinking.

Systems theory is an entire paradigm that involves the study of a focal system, the macro and micro systems around it, and how change has a ripple effect within those systems.

For example, say my MC is a young woman working on a historical farm. She is the focal system. Within her, the micro systems, are her thoughts, feeling, attitudes, etc. Outside of her, the macrosystem, is the farm, her city, her family, her circle of friends, etc. If you change any one element within any of those systems, that change will ripple both inward, to the micro systems, and outward, to the macro. One tiny change in one part might be a tidal wave by the time it reaches another.

Thinking this way will allow you to address all the possible places in which you can create change and conflict. It might also help you create secondary characters, clarify geographic region, and identify your MC’s circle of impact.

2) Self-determination.

This is one of social work’s most honored principles, and it is simply the idea that people have the right to make their own decisions and be supported in those decisions, whether or not you personally agree with those choices or actions.

Who influences your MC’s life? Who does she go to with questions, fears, triumphs, or needs? Who gives her unsolicited advice? Who does she not respect whatsoever, and who’s opinion matters to her sometimes more than her own?

These things will all help you develop relationships, along with their inherent conflict, chaos, and revelation. It can also help you figure out how much your MC believes in themselves and their ability to make choices they actually want to make – and don’t forget, you’re the author…but support your characters’ choices 😉

3) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need

If you’re not familiar with this, do a Google image search and keep a copy right by your writing space. The Hierarchy of Need reminds us that human beings naturally focus on particular needs above others, and that change at one level is highly unlikely to occur unless the levels below have been sorted.

If your MC is in a fight for survival, kindly recall that the need for food and shelter will almost entirely obliterate their ability to focus on things like falling in love or the meaning of their life. Think about how extreme their need really is in light of how extreme their situation is, and how those two things can interact with each other. If they are the kind of person who can fall in love without a roof over their heads, remember to explain why this is such an integral part of their personality, and justify it in terms of their development and character.

Note that in some respect, all the levels need to be addressed in some form, even if completely casual, to show that your MC is capable of developing at the level you’re trying to bring them to. Note also that many theorists say very few people ever reach the level of self-actualization. As in a handful in human history. If your MC is one of them, you need to be able to explain why.

Those are three ways my unique educational background comes into play in my writing. What tips can you bring to the writing table from your own training?


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