Okay, so I find myself wanting to start a new project, and everytime this happens I trip over moving from my 'what if' (what if a man's shadow talked to him. what if there were a world that was upside down and everyone moved around on bridges to keep from falling into the sky. etc.) into an actual piece of fiction.
I have certain things that help me, or rather that I feel I need to do before the shape of my story becomes more clear. For instance, the themes behind the 'what if' or maybe more the implications of said 'what if'. Like what might the man's shadow be saying to him? Is it following him, whispering about every crime he's ever committed? How does he feel about this whole thing? Once I can break it down to very vague themes, guilt, paranoia, whatever, it does help to figure out how to get that across. But STILL, how do YOU guys get from the idea to the characters that shape the plot to getting down the first paragraph and getting the ball rolling? I'd love to hear how your brainstorming process seems to work, and what you keep in mind when trying to flesh out your 'what if'.
Whooooops. Auto correct. Don't see an edit button...
*moved around on bridges to keep from falling.
Oh...there's the edit button...
What if a man's shadow talked to him?
Michael works as an estate agent at a small firm in London. His best friend masquerades as his girlfriend for his parents benefit as his father, a right-wing Member of Parliament, would disown him if he knew Michael was gay. Michael visits gay bars at weekends but is looking for love, not a one night stand. Michael is a natural salesman and can convince anyone to buy anything, however he wants someone to love him for himself, not because he talked them into it.
Then combine the what if with the character and themes he presents, to introduce a concept:
Michael's shadow starts talking to him. It can sell better than he, and can convince him to follow it's desires. What starts as a gentle influence to help him express his inner, closeted self that he doesn't share with the outside world develops into a malicious and destructive force that manipulates his life.
So the opening of the novel is:
It's time to go.
Michael climbed out of the man's bed, careful not to wake him. He pulled on his trousers, pausing to listen to the rhythmic snores. In the kitchen he found a bill, got an address.
Call a taxi from outside.
The carpet absorbed his delicate footsteps. He glanced at his phone. Four am. It was always four am. Why wouldn't it let him sleep through to five?
Personally, I need two essential components: a "what if" and an overall character arc. The "what if" alone usually doesn't get me further than an interesting setting, while the idea like "the quest for the meaning of life" is in and of itself too vague. Together, though, they work magic.
Try searching for an issue you can relate to, as in standing up to the society or, I dunno, mastering the poached egg, and pick the one that seems to fit with your "what if". I'm not saying it will definitely help, but it does tend to solve my block.
Wow that's really great stuff, from both of you! So it really pays to mix those two—character and concept—together. I mean I sort of knew that, but I think I let my thoughts on the plot come before my thoughts on the characters, as weird and fucked up as that sounds, and that's where I trip.
Create a real, compelling, flawed, three dimensional character. Look at the conflict already in their life, and then thow in the 'what if' and watch what happens. If you get it right the characters will start making their own decisions, different to what you planned, as they come alive. At that point your story will live, not just be a series of plot points (Dan Brown, anyone?).
Haha amen to that. So how do you, personally, go about creating a substantial character? How do you settle on their defining characteristics?
The way I've outlined has changed so much over the years. As I become more confident with writing, I went from doing just a regular what if, to a formal outline, to a seven point structure, to a mapping visual outline, to a chapter per chapter seven point structure.
Nowadays it's like this:
What is the Aesop/Theme?
What is the exception? (This drives the arc.)
What is the exceptions epitaph? (Think of this like the exceptions farewell poem.)
What are the riddles to solve for the epitaph?
Who is the main character to solve the riddles?
Then I keep a glossery of terms. And then loosely jot down various other themes that I want to explore in any particular piece. This is what I usually use for non chapter books.
Back in my earliest days of writing I tended to use write a ten page character profile, but latelly thats come to feel like a little bit of a waste of time (and pencil.).:/
I base characters on all sorts. I use bits of real people, throw in fictional elements, that sort of thing. The main thing is to build up someone who is more than a two dimensional plot device. Give them issues, problems, aspirations, feelings. Make them come alive. Ultimately, make them a paradox. Everyone is a natural contradiction, so make sure parts of their personality go against themselves.
These might help:
http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting/character (and associated pages)
Theres loads of this stuff around, particularly here (http://litreactor.com/essays), so you should be able to research and find your own way of building characters that will work for you.
So, Sarah, you sort of like take a story type, a classic sort of mold, and then figure out how to twist it? Something I've never thought of. I never stop to figure, is this a quest for the grail, is this a save the princess dealio. You find that helps to know?
And thanks Seb! I've read just a couple of those—on character crafting, I mean— and I'll definitely check out the others.
Oh wait, maybe you didn't mean that... I saw Aesop and thought: story type. Is that what you meant?
Well it's interesting you ask, as unlike genre work my characters seek out non-concrete aspects of the human existence.
I find that if I make it a grail quet or princess gig it constricts my process.
I meant sort of like theme or message. My characters are rebels that go against the society message enforced upon them.
So then do you take a particular characteristic/message/theme for a character and mix it up with a few others to discover patterns to flesh into the larger story? How does a character occur to you, theme-first and then you carve out their history and quirks and desires?
Usually a character forms based on people I've known previously in high school. As sort of an imprint that forms a ghost in my mind. Usually if they are an abrassive person I knew in high school, I exentuate those particular traits to create a realistic anti-hero. (I usually write tragedies, so they would get there comeuppance eventually.)
My short stories Namorift Persona, and Emoxela come to mind.
I haven't been doing it as much in my picture poetry book writing slump.
And yes I do change their names.
For comic relief: Have any of you guys seen the movie "Authors Anonymous"? I got tired of the satire after a while, but it's funny in places.
Haven't. What's it about?
I'll have to check it out.
Oh, that's not counting how I plot. I really do just dream that stuff up, which explains how when trying to understand the idea when I'm awake I often have to revise and refine it.
Makes sense! I never remember my dreams, but when I drink or fade in and out of sleep while working, ideas and words come pouring out.
Now my picture book Mice And Clowns, like the others is a bit of a ... different process.
Like with my chapter books, I try to get to a state where I've both hammered with beer and had a ton of coffeee. Because I write a lot of my work in a wakeful sleep state. This creates weird stories like my Nymphs Of Winter Fire. Which I both don't remember, and remember writing.
Mice And Clowns was inspired by two clown dolls I knew as a kid.
It's incredible, all this subconscious creativity. Maybe I shouldn't even say subconscious. It's more just tangled up by inhibition and anxiety, and possibly even lucid consciousness.
I've been thinking on how I construct characters. In looking back at the old work, it felt slow. But thats because now I realize it's often more effective to trickle backstory through indirect dialogue exchanges. For example:
"Want to play jump rope with me." the friend said.
"No, I don't like jump rope." the girl said, riding swing set.
"But your brother plays jump rope."
"I don't want to be like him."
In this interaction, you immediatly know more than if you were to show the whole backstory about how she lost in a game of tug of war.
So it's changed a bit how I think about it.