“Pick a number, any number!” probably makes you think of the lottery or a carnival. In writing, picking a number can mean so much more. I have this number I like to call my “magic number.” Every time I am writing or brainstorming, I always refer to that number and try to use it to define my universe. My magic number is three, your mileage may vary.
“What’s all this nonsense about magic numbers?” You ask. “I’m an English major, I hate numbers!” I’m not particularly a fan of numbers either, but this is a situation where I always make an exception. Let’s say that you’re trying to decide how many main characters to create for your story. You want something manageable, but you want enough characters that you can bounce around your ideas between them. You want them to be fully developed people, so you cannot create so many of them that you can never describe them all. Here’s where your magic number comes into play. Let’s say your magic number is four– you would come up with four main characters, develop them, then set them loose in your universe together! “What universe is that?” You wonder. Use your magic number: They are traveling the four ancient kingdoms at the four corners of the world to meet the monarchs of each kingdom and collect the four treasures handed down by each nation to bring to the center of the world to unite all peoples. You can go really crazy with this and use your magic number everywhere. Each kingdom’s royal family could have four people in it, there could be four donkeys along on the journey to carry supplies, there could be four towns they stop at in between each kingdom, etc. It’s a way to create structure.
You don’t have to be strict about using the magic number. The point of magic is that it’s fluid despite its rules. The magic number is mainly there because it can be a huge help when you’re brainstorming or you’re stuck.
Example #2: Your hero is trapped in a cave by the villain who has (of course) kidnapped the hero’s significant other and left the hero stranded and essentially dead. How is your hero to escape this situation? If your magic number is five, try to think up five different ways he could get out of the situation. 1) He has magical earth shifting powers and shakes the rocks from the cave-in loose to escape. 2) He discovers a hidden passage and when he is weak and thin enough to fit, he crawls out to safety. 3) He labors over moving the rocks for hours and is about to give up and despair when his buddy/sidekick arrives on the other side and frees him. 4) Secretly, the hero meant to get trapped in this cave to lull the villain into a false sense of security and previously set up a contraption to release the rocks with minimal fuss at the press of a button. 5) There’s always magic lamps and genies.
Having multiple ways to approach the situation can help you learn a lot about your character. If, as you’re thinking of them, you think, “My hero is way too dumb to come up with the trap thing,” then you realize he’s more the “I’ll be rescued by my buddy” type and you’ve taught the reader and yourself something valuable. This also leaves you with four valid ideas to use in later pieces or that you could substitute later if you decide “Getting rescued by a friend” ends up being too cliché.
When picking your magic number, try to stay in the single digits. Ten might work, but I wouldn’t recommend going higher than that because things will get complicated. Ten kingdoms, yes. Ten main characters, not quite so much. Pick something that works for you and go for it. You’ll be surprised by how much of a difference it makes.