My friend Renee has recently mentioned that for the first time she got an idea for a character, but no story (yet). This was rather disconcerting to her, since she usually grabs a plot first and then characters.
I found it very interesting—I'm the character girl. The story never comes first for me. It's a character in my head that starts talking, then the story evolves from their troubles/life.
It seems like writers are split on this. I certainly don't think either is wrong, but what does happen when you get that character first and you're used to plots? What would I do if I had this awesome plot idea and no character to fill it? I think I'd feel like a fish out of water, that's what.
So I thought today I'd try to put down my process for building that plot when you just have a fun character floating around in your head. (Note: This comes natural for me, so I think it might be hard for me to put it in words. I'll be posing a lot of questions I ask internally, so don't imagine me at my desk writing it all down. I'm way more chaotic than that.)
Okay, here goes nothing.
• Get To Know Your Character
If you want to build a story around them, you need to know who they are. And I'm not talking favorite colors here (as nice as that is)—I mean motivations, histories, desires, fears. Find the answers to these questions, for example:
What does your character want most?
What are the key moments in their past?
You need to know these things first—the smaller details can wait if you want. Why? This is the information that can trigger possible stories. This is the beginning of conflict. Take away what they love. Give them what they hate or fear. Push them to obtain what they want most.
Yes, I'm telling you to figure out your character so you know exactly how to put them through hell. It's what we do.
• Make Your Character Explain Their World
This character is the only window you have to their world—for now. You have to be particularly wary of this, because they might not know the whole story. They are the start. Once they introduce you to places and other people, you can start expanding. Try questions like:
What's your family like? Friends? Enemies?
Where do you work? Go to school? Play?
Is this our current world or another? Past or present or future?
Are there fantastical elements? What are they? How are they set up? How do they affect they world?
Like I said, your character might not know all the answers. But thinking through these things can help inspire plot ideas—ideas that should be directly in conflict with your character's motivations.
• Mess Around
This might be my favorite part of writing—figuring out that budding idea, turning it into something real. There are so many ways to do it, but the key is exploring lots of options and putting together the ones you find most compelling/awesome/genius.
Personally, I look for that whole "inciting incident" thing first. The trigger that makes the story happen. I make notes on where I think the story might go from there. Sometimes I start writing. Sometimes I let it simmer for a long time. Sometimes I just go and write a whole first draft of meandering crap—THEN I realize how the story is supposed to go.
Oh wait, I pretty much do that all the time.
See? I don't really know what I'm talking about. I make mistakes constantly with this story building stuff. But the great thing about stories and characters is that they are malleable. Your first attempt is not set in stone, so it really is okay to figure it out however you want.