How Did You Come Up With THAT?

Book sketch

Not with your Twitter bio. That’s fine.

With your story and the weird people inside it.

My friend and fellow writer Renee Miller (aka The Killer Whisperer) wrote a post recently about the source of her inspiration. And a thing she said reminded me of the main problem I’m facing with my own story — I started creating it ass-backwards.

I’m a character person. I believe in character driven stories. I love digging into people’s heads and unearthing their darkest secrets and most terrifying fears (fictional people, yes, don’t worry, I’m not that creepy). Everything’s about characters in my world.

But when I came up with the story I’m toiling at since spring last year, I came up with the conflict first. The problem, the situation, the twisted hair-raising clinch. After that I came up with the world and setting, and only then—as I was already drafting—with the actual profile of the characters. Oh I had the story plotted and “mapped out” before I began writing, but the characters were mere sketches. They started taking on a real personality, background and motivation when the story was already rolling. Heck, some of the best motivation and deepest psychological flavors came to me only after the first draft was done.

Imagine my pain!

Remember I’m a perfectionist.

NOW imagine my pain.

*grinds teeth*

It’s SO hard to rewrite the thing and stay true to the conflicts and plot (which were pretty okay from the start), while making the sketchy characters evolve and grow into it, and giving them their individual edge without breaking the story.ย It’s fucking insane to weave in the true depth of their motivation AFTER you’ve already written down their choices and key actions.

I swear I won’t ever do this again!

Pinky promise.

One learns new shit with every challenge, ey?

Sigh.

I couldn’t give up on that conflict and change it to suit the characters. And I couldn’t force the characters to fit into a mold either. So the only thing to do was to explore what these characters—which evolved as the story grew—would actually do if they were faced with this insurmountable conflict.ย And the result was sohohooo much better than my initial vision! Only the writing work remained to be done, which is what I’m doing right now.

But man, what a pain in the backside!

Characters… conflict… it’s really somewhat of a chicken-and-egg thing. They must be developed together, at least in my brain, preferably before writing the draft.ย Because I don’t want to go through months of doubt and irritation like that again. That’s what good outlines are for.

 

How about you?

Where did you start out with your WIP? Has that changed from previous books you’ve written?

And seriously, where did you come up with your main characters? Did they evolve out of the story, or the other way around? Are they based on real people, or are they a mix of features you observed throughout your life?

15 Replies to “How Did You Come Up With THAT?”

  1. Interesting question. With me it evolves together in the initial ‘kindlng’. With one story it began with a vivid mental image of a Roman soldier’s helmet and a bronzed face. From that two books emerged. So I suppose that’s ‘character’ based. But other stories have begun with a very rough preconceived conflict/world/concept. But what unites the two is that initial kindling.
    so, what’s kindling? It’s my hybrid between the pantser and the plotter divide. I write whatever it is that’s driving me with little idea or concern as to where it may lead – and this might extend to two or three chapters. For me that’s essential – getting that small fire going. After that my main characters and world are pretty much there, perhaps a rough idea of the central conflict. It’s only then do I stand back and doodle a more complete plot – which I find the hardest. It maybe I’ll only be able to plot the first two thirds of the book – the conclusion only emerging as an innevitablity after that.
    Sorry this is so long. Be interesting to see whether it ties in with you or others.

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    1. I’m glad my post was helpful Veronica. ๐Ÿ™‚

      @Mike: I have the worst time plotting an ending. I usually end up just writing to the point I’ve managed to outline, and then the ending comes when it comes. It’s almost never what I’ve initially written as part of the outline. Maybe I need to stop worrying about “plotting” the last part. Of course, it’d drive me batshit wondering if I’ll come up with the ending when I get to that point….

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    2. “I write whatever it is thatโ€™s driving me with little idea or concern as to where it may lead โ€“ and this might extend to two or three chapters.”

      Interesting, Mike. That sounds more like pantsing than outlining to me.

      I don’t think I can write efficiently that way, though. I have no problem getting the ideas rolling and the fire burning, quite the opposite. I need a system, like a good start-to-end outline, to keep that wild bushfire under control and my energy from being wasted into all kinds of fruitless directions. That outline need not be very detailed, and it obviously suffers some modifications as I draft, but it needs to be in place BEFORE I start to commit the story concept to paper. It saves me a lot of trouble.

      Coming up with the details to the plot is also something I tend to overcomplicate, and if left to my own devices I’ll invariably try to compress the plot of several novels into one. Way too many twists and actions, too many risks, games and complications. Without a solid idea of the thread I need to follow to show the story concept in full glory, I’ll draft for decades and end up with a million-word-tome spanning three galaxies and thirty protagonists. ๐Ÿ˜€

      @Renee — I cna’t imagine writing a novel-length story without an idea of the ending. But that’s me, I guess. I feel uncomfortable pantsing stories. I only feel free and relaxed if I have a solid outline. How’s that for a paradox? ๐Ÿ˜›

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      1. It’s a method that’s well used by many successful writers, and I bet it works nicely for you too, Mike. It’s a good balance.
        In my case, it’s brainstorm and outline to kindle, first draft to consolidate. I presume it’s not the fastest way, but I have room to learn if experience will demand a change of strategy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  2. Character is tough. For me, it’s about having several different personas interacting in a credible, plausible manner. Without falling for stereotypes, I think readers like gregarious characters, those that are larger than life in one way or another.

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    1. Yup, I always thought you were an idea-based storyteller rather than a character-based one. You’re an idea-focused kind of person, after all. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  3. In my story, I had the plot figured out long before my characters, all of whom were rather generic. (Hey, it was my first story and I’m more into plot driven stories.) But as I wrote the story, I discovered the characters needed to have certain traits and attributes for the plot to work out the way I wanted, so I gave them those traits as needed and by the time I was halfway through the book, my characters were fully fleshed out. This process worked out so well, I think I’m going to always leave my characters generic until I begin writing.

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    1. That can certainly work out, if the story is focused primarily on plot.

      Whatever the core of the story is — plot, idea, setting or character — it usually needs to be developed first, and have everything else grow around it, supporting it. As long as that’s ok, the story will be ok. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for the comment, Ken. Have fun diving into your stories plot-first! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  4. Started my first book by a word on a billboard. Got a good name and character off a license plate. The story took off from there.

    I know my second book, a Dangerous Talent for Time, came about because I thought my main character should have his mother be someone from the future. I thought that would be fun. I usually have a general idea of what I want to happen and what the ending is going to be. This gives rise to hair pulling in the middle with details…but I usually have an idea I want to work out, and the characters react to situation…sometimes surprising me.

    I put out the situation and the idea and they react.

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    1. Yeah, middles can be a real pain sometimes. As long as you follow your characters, the plot will fall into place sooner or later. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Well, now I’m scared. My current WIP was story first, everything else after. My very first WIP was the same way and I’m currently on its 7th draft.
    Depending on how my current book goes, I may start the next by giving life to character first and foremost!

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    1. If the reason for the endless rewriting (a far more common problem than most writers would admit in public) is insufficient character motivation or mismatched characters altogether, then yes, starting out with the characters is a great idea. It means you too are someone who needs to know his cast well before letting them loose on the story.

      Wish you good luck figuring out the best way to tell the story you want to tell, David! And thanks for commenting. ๐Ÿ™‚

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