A young writer asked me how I came up with story ideas. I told her, I create a character.
It took me some time to come up with that answer. Because I started wondering where ideas come from and how they develop into a story, much less a unique story. And somewhere in there it dawned on me how important the characters are. Really.
My first novel might have started with a plot idea that I wanted to happen in a specific way and from that I created characters that would fit that story idea. But since then, I’ve pretty much thrown that out the window.
If you write that way with a plot idea first, you have to worry about typical tropes, and writing flat characters who make decisions that sometimes don’t make a lot of sense, but need to be made THAT way to keep the plot moving. It is difficult because you are always prodding the characters along like a balky horse that just wants to turn back to the stable and skip the ride.
I learned that isn’t the way to write a few novels ago.
And it is a poor way to come up with an idea too.
I told this young writer that you need to find a character first. Like this maple tree that I’m sitting under right now. It is on the shore of Lake Ontario in a New York state park campground. She’s leaning out over the water as if seeking something, branches stretching toward a shore I cannot see. Its like she wants to reach Canada. See, now she is a ‘she’!
What if she really is a wayward traveler, rooted here in the bank by a spell and a poor decision? What did she leave behind? What does she miss so much that she threatens her existence, straining to reach across the water?
See. I have the inkling of a story.
The same thing happened a few days ago as I rode to a restaurant in the back seat of my parent’s convertible. The top was down and traffic was moving between tall brick buildings like we were racing down a canyon. And then this car behind us ROARED, loud exhaust growling and snarling as we jumped ahead at a traffic light changing to green and taking off like startled gazelles as this beast chased us into the evening twilight amid shadows of steep walls.
My fingers itched for a keyboard in that moment. The scene was so real. Adrenaline pumping, I could have slipped into another realm. I’m not sure if it would have been a Mad Max race scene or a dragon chasing my small band of heroes as they rode for their lives, but when I dredge that memory to the surface, it will be awesome.
In that case, my family and the other drivers became the characters while the revved up car became a fantastic beast careening down the canyon with roars echoing between walls. It was only a glance, but it makes me wonder where it will fit in a larger story.
I’ve joked that my characters from my first epic fantasy trilogy wanted me to write this second one. They bothered me so much and whispered such great ideas that I started writing. Which is how books 2 and 3 of the first series went as well.
I’ve learned to trust my characters. When writing isn’t flowing, it is because I don’t hear their voice. When it is going well, it is because I am watching them get into trouble. Yes, I have a plot in mind. Because they’ve shared enough with me that I know where things will lead. But getting there is letting them take the wheel.
And sometimes they make decisions that I didn’t see coming, but make so much sense that I want to take credit for it. I’ve had to write an additional novel once to follow an incredibly awesome choice (which is how book 3 of Friends of my Enemy came to be).
But really, the strength of developing a story based on a great character is that the idea will be as fresh and unique as that character. Sure, maybe she is a farm girl chasing a dragon. But if she is at one point in the story a maple tree … well that would be different.
So I say look around you for that next amazing character and tell her story. See where it leads. If it looks good, write it down. Tell me about it! 🙂
That is where my story ideas come from. Where do you find yours?