People start new stories a myriad of different ways. Sometimes it’s a flash of a scene they see in their mind’s eye or the lyrics to a song that sparks some dialogue. A specific smell might trigger it or the way someone is dressed.
I don’t know if it’s true of everyone but I like to believe that writers have a stronger connection to certain parts of a story than others so when inspiration strikes, that strength comes to the foreground.
For instance, you could be thumbing through a magazine and see a beautiful cursive type font and suddenly you see a young woman from Jane Austen’s world penning a letter over a scarred and ink-stained desk, a tendril of copper hair escaping her severe bun. Or you can hear the distant refrain from some classical Russian Ballet soundtrack and then you’re meandering down cobblestone streets, carrying a basket of fruit and bread down an alleyway to take home for dinner and you look up to admire the cloudless day in between the white washed buildings.
One is character driven inspiration and one is world driven.
When I write, I tend to be more character driven. I love the process of picking out names and giving the blank slate mannequins different personalities. I used to be really bad at creating believable characters. I would pour into them sugar, spice and everything nice on top of all my personal hopes and dreams. Guitar playing? Yep, since childhood. Knows several languages? Bein sûr! Can run 5k marathons and hike Mount Everest–without oxygen? Cake walk! And that’s just the main character.
Yeah I know >< We all start somewhere. (Keep that in mind when you’re writing!)
I’ve since learned to spread those qualities out among the entire cast. I’ve also learned that they really do need annoying habits and quirks to make them believable. I created a character that pretty much hates everything except music and death. He’s my first anti-hero and probably the most extreme character I’ve ever created. I’ve also made a character that sacrifices so much of herself for other people that she never figured out what she wanted out of life and has to journey to figure it out. Another extreme.
It was some big personal growth for me realizing how one-note my cast was and fixing it, adding to it and balancing them appropriately. I was pretty proud! I could re-read my drafts now and nod approvingly. Yes, these could be real people walking down the street. Yay me! Gold star on my forehead!
I still have more growth that needs to happen though, naturally. I realized this as I was trying to go back to writing one of my NaNoWriMo stories, “Hourglass”. In a nut shell, I abhor details.
I had my three main characters set up in this story. They had names and personalities that played off each other. They had importance in the story and provided plenty of conflict. All seemed well until I came to a flash back. Ahh crap. This means I need to provide BACKGROUND. And here, my friends, is where my downfall is while creating my characters.
Background. History. Family. Childhood.
Now these things don’t seem like they’re important in most stories. Unless you’re writing a biography or writing a lot about the character’s history, you’ll only ever really write about key events from their past to explain their current behaviors. Minimal effort put into the background may seem sufficient. Plus, this is a lot of extra work, writing down background stuff that may never end up in the story at all.
BUT MAYBE IT WILL.
I had an instance where my character basically had to go back and visit her husband in the past. She had to get answers from him that would determine her future actions. It is a rather pivotal scene that I’ve been stuck on for a long while because I never gave her enough history to augment this dialogue.
Creating history for your cast or characters can only benefit you in the long run. And the beauty of it is that you can make it as detailed or as simple as you like. If you don’t know how to start, there are tons of questionnaires out there on the internet. You can google it and come up with hundreds of results. There’s no shame in using them! There’s also no shame in changing details when you need to. Great aunt Mildred can become Great Aunt Tessie. Daddy could have died of leukemia instead of sickle-cell anemia. Favorite childhood snack could be popcorn instead of brownies.
The point of it is, to have the information on hand when it’s needed. Or even when it’s not needed. Often writers will have secrets about their characters that no one else is supposed to know, not even the readers, but sometimes they slip in anyway. Go for it! Details like that make them seem more alive and personable.
Plus, creating a character background allows you to be on-on-one with your cast. You can really get to know them, ask them questions and get answers. You’ll be able to know exactly how he/she will react in any given situation because you know them so well. They won’t act out of character when a bomb blows up their car or they’re passionately kissed by a stranger because you, as a writer, took the time to familiarize yourself with their personalities.
Yes. This is more work on top of everything else a writer is “supposed” to do but think of it as building a foundation. These details will build your stories brick by brick until you’ve created a mansion for readers to frolick through and enjoy.
Put in the work, reap the rewards!