It’s a pretty common question for writers: what do you create first when starting a story?
But if you’re new to writing, it can often be hard to move PAST that first idea. How do you take the second step once you have an idea?
It turns out, I’m a reasonably good person to give advice on this because my brain is weird and I often have different ideas. Some of my books or works-in-progress (30 Days Without Wings, Fraun 4 (no title I can release yet), the MagicalYA) have been character first. Still, some of my other ideas have started somewhere else. Breaking Eselda started with setting. Redeeming Jordyn and Projection started with their central problems. Training Tutor and GhostlyYA both started with a theme in mind. So, apparently, I’m capable of turning any starting idea into a story if I try hard enough.
Today, let’s look at one specific type of idea, namely …
What happens when a character comes to you first?
Let’s take a look at what works for me, in the event that you decide to borrow this. Let me know what you think or what works for you!
Here’s that process:
- Character pops into my head. This is the hardest step to explain because I have NO IDEA how this happens. I’ll be living my life and BOOM I’ll imagine a character. Sometimes it’s because I was listening to a song, for example, and just imagined the person it could be about. Sometimes I see a person out in public and imagine a whole backstory for them. I cannot control this stuff. It just happens. In the writing sample I’m going to include here, it was a person I saw at the hockey rink who I’d never seen before.
- Character will not leave me alone. They suddenly want me to think about them all the time. I think of them at random times. Sometimes I dream about them. I consider throwing them into whatever project I’m currently working on. Basically, they just keep annoying me.
- Sit down, imagine a scene with them and let it play out. Usually I do this in the car. I’ll literally think “Ok, fine. What if I did write about that character? How would that go?” and then let my mind wander. It turns out daydreaming is an essential part of my writing process.
- Write that scene down. When I get somewhere with a computer or paper and a pencil, I write down that random scene I just envisioned. It’s not always wonderful (heck, if it’s pencil I can’t even always read it later) but I get it out of my head.
- Sometimes, that’s when the character goes silent for awhile. That means I can shelve this character (permanently putting them in the idea journal until I need them again).
- Sometimes, that’s not enough. When this happens I’ll often have multiple scenes with the same character, all crafted using the same method. These are normally the characters I decide are going to need a full book and an outline. I let myself craft multiple scenes before I decide this. It helps me connect to that character and start to learn a lot about them.
So that’s the basic process.
Let’s look at one example, shall we?
This example I’m showing you today seemed promising at first. But that was way back when I didn’t admit I was a writer and didn’t fully understand my own process yet.
5 years ago I found and typed the pages into the computer (they were handwritten before). I still thought I liked it, so I even started an outline. I got 7 bullet points into the outline (which means 7 chapters the way I do things) and stalled out. I had no idea what happened in this story.
It’s been shelved exactly like that since 2015.
So why did it come back today?
Well, for one, I wanted to talk about character connecting and how I do that when character comes to me first. Second, I’m thinking this is a possible front runner for NaNoWriMo2020. I still have time for that one, so I’m not fully sure yet. Maybe I’ll make a bracket or something and have fun with it.
Anyway, that’s how I handle things when a character comes to me first.
Enjoy the sample!
Everything changes when you’re a parent. For example, the loud bang reverberating through my house and waking me from a sound sleep. That sound would’ve sent my heart racing and my sweat glands into overdrive if I were single and living alone. But as a parent it, instead, has me wondering which delicate little monster has arisen first on this otherwise beautiful, rainy Saturday.
I squint my eyes in an attempt to see the blurry blonde blob outside of my bedroom door with my naked eyeballs. From the darker blob at the child’s left I assume the little leprechaun is raiding my linen closet, which doubles as a game closet. The door is pushed closed, the lack of a familiar click informing me the child has not managed to learn how to fully close doors in their sleep. Then the giggles rise up as the blob races out of my vision.
Adrianna is 6. She’s my youngest and she’s full of sassy attitude. According to the offensive alarm clock at my left Miss Sassy has chosen to wake up at 6:54 this morning. Cue the next change spawned by parenthood, my reaction to this early time. I’m experiencing relief and sheer joy, I slept in!
At the doorway I remember the date and pause for just a second. Tomorrow I will officially be 30. Birthdays have changed a lot over the years, haven’t they? I remember looking forward to the magic day when I was younger, convinced dreams and wishes came true on that one day a year. Now I’m lucky if I can remember how old I will be turning without having to do the math first. My oldest child, a verbally gifted 8 year old named Easton, informed me the other day that I will be “almost 40” when I am teaching him to drive. Fantastic, maybe I’ll hire him to keep track of my age from now on.
After taking my daily medication (oh, dear Lord, I’m getting old) and starting the coffee I find little Adi has moved her rummaging from the linen closet to the pantry. She is sorting through cereal boxes like there may be a hidden one back there, out of her immediate line of sight. “Good morning small fry,” I say, kissing her on the top of her little blonde head.
“Please you pour me cereal.” Apparently, that is good morning in her native tongue.
I pour the fruity cereal she’s holding into a plastic bowl. I turn my back for just a second, long enough to put the box of cereal back on the shelf. It’s too long, apparently, for little Adi to wait. Before I can even take my hand off the box I heard the unmistakable sound of milk being poured all over the kitchen floor.
I sigh and grab a brand new roll of paper towels. Life has certainly changed.
Do you have any place in your life where you feel like you spend all of your time? Like the coffee shop in Friends (trust me, that will not be the last reference to the classic tv show. If you are unfamiliar, put this book down and go watch an episode online. Trust me.) For my family that place is the ice skating rink. Easton is a hockey player. He has been since he was three. Barely able to walk the child was slipping and sliding around the frozen surface like it was meant to be.
Each and every Saturday since then we can be found at the hockey rink for anywhere from one to three hours, depending on schedules. So, being that it’s Saturday, there I sit. My only comfort during this time otherwise spent watching the kids skate around in what appears to be random circles is the coffee we have a habit of picking up on the way there.
As I’m sitting there, watching the boys rough house more than they’re practicing, the worst happens. I have to pee. This is terrible news because the public restroom and I are not friends. The one here is not terrible, as public restrooms go. They keep it warmer than the ice rink, which is nice. There’s a lot of stalls, which likely means the number of people who actually put their naked butt cheeks down on the exact one I’m choosing to use is smaller. Also, it’s relatively clean. But it’s still a public restroom, which means other people use it. Also because it’s so loud, it echoes. When the stream of urine leaves your body it resonates through the restroom and everyone can hear it. Worse, if my child screeches in there it’s going to echo in your ears for a few minutes.
This is the reason why I decide to attempt the impossible. I’m going to try and sneak away to the bathroom without Adi following me. I stand up, straighten my shirt, and wave toward my husband to get his attention. When he looks at me I point at myself, then the bathroom. Then I point at Adi and shake my head as if to say “no kids in there, I mean it”. He smiles and nods. I take that to mean “I am completely in agreement with you on that one. You’re a genius.”Obviously, this is pretty rough. It’s an essentially unedited zero draft of something I wrote YEARS ago (more than 5 but unknown exactly how long because the handwritten one is missing). Basically, it’s my original work so don’t steal … but feel free to let me know what you think. K? Thanks!