Getting Started (with a new Character)

I am often asked how I start a writing project. Or where I start a writing project. Mostly because starting to write fiction can seem daunting if it is new to you. When I started thinking about starting to write fiction, I read what a lot of different people wrote about writing. There was a lot of repeat advice, some good and some included because I think it was expected to be included. Some favored a more practical workman like approach and some were straight out of a literary criticism lecture.

The truth is, how you start writing depends a lot on what you are writing, why you are writing, and who you are writing for (audience wise), but a lot of it depends on how your brain puts things together. which is why there is no one right way.

My brain mostly just wants to tell a good story.

To get this done, my brain favors several different paths and the one I choose depends on how the story grabbed me in the first place. Sometimes I’ll read something and there will be a high concept idea that hits me. “Wow I could write something about food shortages, or overpopulation or even dealing with grief.” (That’s how City of Wonder came to be)

Sometimes a sentence will hit me like a hammer in the middle of my forehead and I will have to write it down and then let the words just sort of flow out just to see where the sentence leads. Or I’ll see a scene in my head and need to fit it in somewhere to find out what it is a part of. (And that’s actually how the short story Palace of the Gods was born.)

More often than not, there are two ways that a story grabs me. One is by plot and the other by character. I’ll leave plot for a different post. For now we’ll start with character.

So there I’ll be, minding my own business when my brain decides that I need to write a story for a character. It could be based on someone I’ve met (or more often someone I’ve seen, never talked to and blended mentally with several other people in the giant cosmic cocktail shaker of my subconscious.) The character may have been there for a while, floating around waiting for a story to pull him in, or it may be a new impulse.

However he got there, we will call him Bob.

So now I’m thinking about Bob and the more I think about Bob the more I start to picture him.

Bob is an accountant. He’s worked at the same company for twenty years. He is solid and reliable. He can work his way through masses of red tape and is often sent out as an independent corporate auditor when other companies want to make sure their books are clean before an actual audit. His meticulous nature can spot details others miss and his supervisors are worried that he will one day realize how good he is and be stolen away by one of the grateful corporate clients who want to keep him around. They make sure he gets his annual cost of living increase and any bonus available because he makes them look good and he causes no trouble.

All of which is lost on Bob. He thinks no one at work notices him. he thinks he is just the invisible cog in the machinery and is quite okay with that. He wants stability more than notice.

Bob’s one dissatisfaction is his pillow. He loved the goose down pillows of his childhood but developed an allergy and has been questing for the perfect pillow ever since. He has a closet full of discards. For breakfast every morning Bob eats a bowl of Cocoa Krispies, even though if asked he would tell whoever was asking that he ate cornflakes as it seems more adult. And he possesses a slight internal dread at the thought of casual Friday since removing his tie in the office makes him feel untethered and as though the part of him that likes cocoa krispies instead of cornflakes might escape and do something unexpected where his coworkers can see him.

So this is Bob. At least how he currently appears to me in my head. As I work with him, I’d flesh him out more. I’d figure out height, weight, hair and eye color. All the little bits that let you see him. But at the moment, his actual appearance isn’t relevant. In fact, since I didn’t see him visually when I thought of him, his appearance will more than likely be shaped by the story I put him in. He will end up looking as the plot needs him to look.

Handsome, forgettable or ugly as sin will all be determined by the story.

Because as interesting as Bob may be to some corner of my brain, he doesn’t matter if i can’t put him in a story. People don’t pick up quick character sketches to see how they turn out. they want a story to go with the people in them.

From here there are several ways I could take the story of Bob. And here is where I tend to break out the spiral notebook and pen rather than the keyboard. I tend to stock up on cheap spiral notebooks at the beginning of every school year. For me brainstorming like this tends to work better when i put pen to page rather than typing it in. It feels less official and my brain actually thinks slightly differently when I’m typing then when I am writing. It is something that I often use to my advantage when I am stuck on a plot point.

So pen to paper, I begin to make a list of possible stories for Bob. The first section is entirely based on the above description and may look something like this:

  • the quest for a pillow
  • why does he crave stability
  • the closet full of empty pillows, Discovered? Overflowing?
  • someone seeing him buying cocoa krispies
  • a snafu with a corporate client
  • a jealous coworker
  • something that happens when the necktie is removed.

Each of these could lead to a different story for Bob. Does the quest for a pillow lead him to a part of town where he meets someone new or sees something he shouldn’t? From there I could take Bob into a thriller or a romance novel.

If I look at the corporate client angle, I could go with corporate espionage, bribery, a coverup, a secret investigation by the feds. I can even go further afield if I wanted. A space faring alien who is monitoring earth manages to pick up one of Bob’s performance reviews when copying records for those back home studying humanity. The alien realizes that Bob’s ability to sift through tiny pieces of data could help him ferret out an information leak and as he is human he could be trusted not to have any ties to any other alien factions.

Or Bob could be an alien accountant and I could go straight Sci-Fi with it.

I could just go literary fiction with the day Bob took his tie off.

I could have him be an accountant of something other than money, like dreams or water usage in desert regions.

I could, and probably would blend several of those bullet points into a single story. Just because Bob is an eight foot tall lizard creature from the planet Gertaviton doesn’t mean he couldn’t have had a difficult childhood.

As I just have the basic Bob character, the possibilities of where he might end up are pretty broad. So as I start to list things out, I’ll start breaking down the possibilities and see what plot lines come out of them. There might be several I like or there might be none that really scream ‘put Bob here’. In which case Bob will go back on the shelf and wait until his story arrives. Some of the plots I work out might go better with other characters I’ve shelved and so I will pair them up and work on them instead.

Once I find the story that suits Bob, I’ll work on more details about both Bob and the Plot circling around him. But that is another post. For now, this is how I take a character and start to set up a story.

This is how I begin.

Hopefully some of you found this helpful. Let me know in the comments. With the Thursday posts I plan on breaking down how I deal with various writing issues/topics so if there is something you want me to look into covering, or if you have questions about what I wrote, let me know.

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