Monday, August 2, 2010

Pulling A Story Out Of Nowhere

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?

Fear most?

Hate most?

Love most?

What are the key moments in their past?

Best moment?

Worst moment?

Embarrassing moment?

Scariest? (Etc.)

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.


  1. I have one short story that the character was begging me to tell her story. It was the first time that I had not worked with plot first and made the characters to match.

    I have that story out now and am awaiting word whether it will be bought or rejected.

    It was a neat experience to listen to her tell me her story.

  2. Funny, this just happened to me, too. I'm usually a plot-first girl, but about a year ago I had this girl/situation pop up (they go hand-in-hand) and I finally got started on it this past week. She's so incredibly insecure about everything that she's kinda numb to it all.

  3. Oh Natalie, we are the same person. I mean, not really, but really. :P

    For me the key is: What is a character most afraid of / what is most dear to them? Building a story becomes a lot easier when I know what matters to my protagonist.

  4. Great post! I'm more of a plot idea kind of writer, and then the characters come afterwards

  5. I did this with my most recent WIP, and though I won't use all the info, it helped me flesh out the plot a lot better!

  6. I've never had a plot idea without characters attached, or characters without an idea of the trouble they're in coming along with them. Maybe I'm weird? O.o

    In terms of "messing around" -- that's such a perfect phrase for it! "Sometimes I just go and write a whole first draft of meandering crap—THEN I realize how the story is supposed to go." Exactly! It's almost ritual for my first draft of a brand new story to be something craptastic that answers questions I've posed more than it tells the story. So then I hack, slash, rewrite, and something actually readable comes out of the ashes of the first draft.

    I don't think there's one "right" way to start building a story. If it comes alive and you want to write it, are intrigued enough about the characters and world to ask the questions and dig deeper, then you know it's something worth working on.

  7. I seem to write with the plot in mind first, although the plot always comes with a few voices. Isn't it interesting how differently we all write? I like your check list. I'll have to run my characters through it.

  8. You're a good friend, Natalie. :) I'm totally taking notes here.

    This character might just get a plot after all. :)

    P.S. I loved the drawing of Graham. It pretty much rocks.

  9. Great post! I usually find one character first then without even thinking about it start to build a world around then, then the plot slowly forms...

  10. Very cool. I usually find the plot first, but I do have one story idea with a character and a world, but no plot to speak of. I'll have to try this with it.

  11. I start out with an inciting idea, most often - I just call it the premise.

    Ooo, what if the Earth was going to implode in a month, and there was this dude with a Star Trek typ space ship, but he'd only take aboard one woman and man from each country... and the story of what ppl would do to be that one person...

    Sometimes I start with a character.

    Almost never do I start with a plot, and I often don't finish with one either. lol.

  12. I'm just like you, the characters come to me first, and then their story.

    Your post was insightful and helpful :)

  13. Mine nearly always start the opposite--I get a plot first and characters come from that. It probably has something to do with me being such a huge history geek. I tend to get inspired by some event/time/place that something just develops from there.

    Like Naomi's story. My interest in Meiji Japan and the whole "East meets West" and the conflicts that arose during that time was what got me interested in coming up with a story. Then I thought what if I had a character who was a mix of both and how would she feel?

    Same thing with my Yuki-onna story. I was fascinated by the myth and then the character development came. I haven't worked on that one in awhile though but I know I need a bit more character development. I've got the plot down.

  14. I've usually come up with the plot first, but the character grew from that. Not sure what's best! I suppose whatever fits the writer.

  15. Julie, definitely no right or wrong here! I think both methods work great—it just seems writers are one or the other.

  16. I typically get the visuals — the character at the centre of a maelstrom demanding explanation.

    So then I ask questions, fill in the blanks, attempting at all times in the early stages to accept all offers I get, even if they don't seem to fit.

    The more I know, the more I refine what I'm looking for, until I have something that makes some sort of intrinsic sense.

    What I've stopped doing (because it doesn't work for me) is wondering how my characters might react to situations that aren't part of the narrative.

  17. I'm sort of a character, story, setting and anything else girl. It seems like my ideas never come the same way twice.

  18. Haha, glad to know I'm not the only writer who makes lots of mistakes. Writing is a messy thing.

  19. This is such a good exercise. I think they're all good suggestions. I have one addition--I often do the character's horoscope and then look it up in Linda Goodman's sun signs. It can give you some marvelous little quirks and character tags that make it real!

  20. Excellent article!! Really, really enjoyed it and saw wise, wise words. I use a character chart myself -- lie a bio questionnaire and right now I have this *amazing* hero but no book, so we just keep hanging out and talking to each other!! That's fun, too!!

    Jacqui Jacoby

  21. Thank you for this! About two weeks ago, I had the same thing happen to me that happened to your friend. I got this great character, complete with a location, arrive in my head ready to go. But I had no story! I've never had this happen. Usually, I get a character with a sketchy story idea all rolled in one.

    I haven't been sure what to do with her (or her friend who showed up the next day!). I'm going to try your questions and see what she has to say. Fingers crossed that a story shows up!

  22. Just re-read this post, because I'm having trouble with the inciting incident or "lightbulb moment" as I like to call it. I've always been a plot-first person - the idea of the character checklist fills me with dread. Every time I read about one, I get all anxious and like - do I really have to think about these things? - I absolutely hate it because I usually just like the character to develop along the way, as stuff happens to them. I must try it though - it can't hurt!