Category Archives: Characters

Figuring out the questions

Every writer’s creative process differs from every other writer’s. It took me a long time to understand mine, to leave it alone, and let it do its thing. For the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aanora, trying to figure out how best to open to her and her story. Like every other part of the creative process, this part should not — cannot — be pushed.

One thing that always bothers me with the appearance of a new character is figuring out what her or his driving desire is in the story. Once I know that, more questions emerge, and the biggest is what happens now? A wise screenwriting teacher once said that after determining what the main character wants, then it’s time to ask just what that character will do to get it. This gives the writer an idea of the moral make-up of that character, if he’s passive or active, and how he approaches problems. But the question that comes next is where I’m struggling now: what are the obstacles/conflicts that the character must overcome in order to get what she wants?

As I began thinking about that, I had a shocking thought: Aanora was not the main character of the story! Oh, no. This was weird. Who was she, then? And who was the main character?

 

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole At NASA APOD)

I suppose this revelation that Aanora wasn’t the main character could have totally derailed me and my thinking, but I just kept asking questions of my imagination and waited.  I do a lot of waiting during the early stages of developing a story. Sometimes I’ll work on something else, like blog posts or book reviews, or I’ll start doing what I sense could be related to the new story in terms of research.  Since this story seems to be heading into outer space rather than staying on earth, I’ve begun researching the Milky Way Galaxy. It boggles my mind how gigantic our galaxy is, and it’s only one in a universe full of galaxies. And I’ve also begun thinking about Aanora’s original home, her backstory.

Eventually, some answers bubbled out of my imagination. Aanora was a pivotal character, a VIC (very important character), and crucial to the story and that’s apparently why she appeared in my mind first.  She is also apparently crucial to the success of the captain and crew of the space ship that finds her. I know now that they had been sent to find her, to ask for her help in a diplomatic mission. So now I have more and more questions! Where is the space ship from? Who are the beings on the ship? Who is the captain and his crew? Are they peaceful? Warlike? Well, if they are seeking Aanora for diplomatic reasons, perhaps they are also diplomats? What is the diplomatic mission? Who does it involve? Am I going to be creating sentient aliens? In this dimension or Aanora’s? Oh, and by the way, who is the main character of this story?!

Writing an outer space story makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s new for me now — when I was in elementary school I wrote maybe ten or eleven outer space sci fi stories that my teacher read aloud to the class.  I really haven’t written anything with an outer space setting since. Two things I began yesterday when I was working on this story: 1) a Notes document that contains all my questions, and then the answers when they come to me; and 2) the beginning of a very rough outline which is to say a list of plot points.

I’ve never really written about my creative process in this way before — laying it out for the world to see. I’m very curious to see if it will help or hurt my process. It could supplement my Notes file, although I do welcome comments! And I’m hoping that this process with this new story will actually ease me back into work on the Perceval novels eventually.

She Has a Name

Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

Creative thinking flows in and out, between thoughts, and feeds more creative thinking. I realized about halfway through this past week that the new character I wrote about last weekend had emerged from an idea that I’d incorporated in the short story I finished (the first draft) last weekend. She’s not a part of that story, though.  She has her own story. But now I understand why I thought she was a Wizard capable of powerful magic.

Parallel universes have been an interest of mine for many years. In science fiction, the notion of them fuels many stories (too many to list here, but there’s a list here).  Sometimes they’re known as alternate reality stories. The story I finished last weekend was about a parallel dimension, i.e. a dimension that existed in the same space as ours, populated with very different kinds of sentient beings. It was this idea that sparked the character I thought was a Wizard. I love the way my mind works.

So, this new character is actually from a parallel dimension and travels freely between our reality and her original one. She is a type of sentient being that has the ability to transform herself into any form, i.e. a shape shifter. They know how to move simply by thinking of the destination. (I’d definitely like that ability to commute to and from my fulltime job!) And she has powers that we humans might regard as magic. She uses her powers for helping others, and has worked as an interstellar diplomat. She’s also worked on earth as a diner waitress. (I have no idea where that came from.)

I had thought that she lived on a desert planet because of the granite wall I saw her eyes in, but I was wrong. She actually lives on a Class M planet in our galaxy, but quite far from earth. I’m actually seeing the landscape as more like northern Minnesota or maybe even northern New York (lots of granite walls there) with forests, lakes, meadows full of wild flowers. I need to know more about this planet, why it’s Class M, why I see it with such a familiar landscape, and why she chose to live there. Is that her story? Or is her story something else? I have a feeling she’s going to get involved with helping someone with something.

Yesterday afternoon, I wrote furiously for several hours, ignoring anything that would distract me from getting the words down. I wrote three scenes, one of which looks like it may be the beginning of the story. I just wrote what I saw in my mind. It’s a good thing I type fast. Right now, I’m thinking that it’s a short story, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being a novella. I have what could be the end, too. Now the challenge is to find the middle. What happens? What does this character want? What will she do to get it? What are the obstacles in her way?

While it’s exciting to meet a new character, exciting to start something new, I also know that it’s the beginning of a lot of hard work. It’s always a good thing if the character fascinates (yes, she does) and compels me to think about her (she does) and wonder about her and want to know more. She surprised me, too, yesterday — I love it when characters surprise me. She told me her name.

Aanora.

Character: The First Appearance

Yesterday, I had a great afternoon of writing fiction! All the pent up creative energy flowed out onto the page and my imagination just played, and played, and played. The result: a finished first draft of a story that had been stuck in limbo before. I feel as if I’ve flown free of prison — the prison of fulltime work and not having enough time to think creatively for my fiction. My body has finally become accustomed to the fulltime work schedule during the week, I’m not as behind with mundane chores, and I now have the time and brain and energy to work creatively on weekends.

So, wouldn’t you know it? A new character has popped into my head. She doesn’t yet have a name, although I know it’ll be something unusual. I know she’s middle-aged. I know that she’s a shape-shifter. She is also a Wizard, i.e. a master of magic. I think. Her shape-shifting has nothing to do with her magic, it is her physical form so she is not human. She is a White Wizard, i.e. she uses her magic for good, not evil. The first time she appeared in my mind, it was two very feminine green eyes in what looked like a rough granite wall. She was hiding. Why was she hiding? The granite wall was on an alien planet. At this point, I have no idea where or when, although I’m thinking future.

Maybe the power she has isn’t exactly magic. Wizard was the first thing that came to mind for what she could do. She has the power to move from one point to another instantly. She only has to think it.  Although she’s middle-aged for her kind, she would be quite old in human years. I see her as having a high level of integrity, of honesty, of compassion, and of mischievous humor. She is modest. And oddly, I see her having worked as a diplomat at some point in the past. What universe does she inhabit? What does she want? Is she a protagonist, or is she a POV character and another character is the protagonist?  She inhabits science fiction or fantasy, I think, probably science fiction. Maybe a pivotal character in the story somehow.

While doing some cursory research on “wizard – female” online, I ran across a site that generates wizard names. So for the fun of it, I clicked on “female” to see what would come up. A lot of nothing that grabbed me, but a couple I wrote down because I could think about them and maybe they’d spark other names. They already have, actually. So I’ll be writing down names for a while until one really hits me as the one that fits her.

There’s a lot I don’t know about this character, but I have a strong sense that she’s here to stay. Typically, she’ll get around to telling me more about herself eventually, and I’ll find out who she is, what she’s doing in the granite wall (besides hiding), and what the story is. She’s interesting right now, just as she is.  I can’t wait to find out more.

It’s all in the timing….

This morning, I stumbled across a brief interview with a young Whiting Award-winning writer, Kaitlyn Greenidge, in the September 2017 issue of The Writer. She was asked: “What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?” Her response:

I think that it takes a long time. There is no rushing it, and the work exists on its own timetable, outside of your own personal deadlines.

My first thought was, Oh, wow, now I know why I’m having such a hard time finishing that short story I want to finish. And reading on, the next question was “How has this helped you as a writer?” Greenidge’s response: “It is hard to be patient, but that’s what is needed.”

It certainly is hard to be patient in a world of impatience, populated with people who want instant gratification. Including me. As a writer, I know from personal experience that a story cannot be rushed. I know that characters exist in their own universe and their time is not my time. Hard as I try, the characters will do what they will, live as they will, speak as they will.

But I start to feel guilty when I don’t have the time to spend with the characters and their stories. I’ve felt this acute guilt the last 3 months as I’ve been getting used to a new fulltime job and the 5-day-a-week schedule that goes with it. I think about the various projects that await my attention. I read and read and read, which is valuable for a writer in and of itself. The actual writing I’ve been doing during the week has been focused on business writing, not creative writing. The weekend comes and suddenly I’m up to my ears in chores, catching up with e-mail, working on blog posts. I have not written in my journal for 2 years. Every day I get up and think, something’s got to change.

I can only hope that my characters won’t abandon me.  I have not abandoned them. I’d much rather be spending time with them. And I am starting to figure out ways to shift when I do chores, when I do e-mail, etc. My goal is to empty my weekend schedule so that I can spend 2 days writing fiction.

It took me years to write Perceval’s Secret. I thought I knew Evan Quinn after I finished the first draft, but as I delved deeper into researching conducting and conductors, I found I didn’t know as much as I thought. Research will do that. And Evan was slow to trust me with his real story. But once I had the uninterrupted time to spend with him, he began to talk…and talk and talk and talk. He simply would not shut up, and talked out 5 books instead of one. That’s fine. I’m certain that once I’m back in the swing on fiction again, he’ll return with more information so I can finish his story.

So, I’m learning patience with myself and my work schedule, and learning how to shift things around to accommodate my writing. It’s a slow process. But I have to think that characters also need to be patient with their writers, i.e. my characters patient with me.

Are you a patient writer?  How long does it take your stories to emerge? Have your characters been patient with you?

How to Develop Ideas for Stories

Most writers have been asked how they come up with their stories, where do they get their ideas, or some variation on that theme. No one ever asks how the ideas actually become the stories.  After all, ideas are only the beginning, and stories do not drop out of the brain fully formed and ready to publish. My experience with ideas boils down to this: about three-fourths of them are not viable, i.e. they cannot be developed into a full story with conflicts and resolution, character development and a coherent structure. Those ideas usually are great beginnings that never go anywhere.

The other quarter? They need to be rigorously tested and developed, twisted and pulled, shaped and trimmed until they prove themselves to be the stories they promised to be. In other words, prepare to work those ideas.  How?

My process seems to change with each new idea, i.e. the idea itself dictates how to develop it. For Perceval’s Secret, the original idea was actually a character. So, I began by first writing a description of that character and what he was doing when he came into my consciousness from my imagination. My next step was to ask the character questions, but not direct questions like who are you? I started a conversation with him as if he were the guy sitting next to me at a bar. How’s life treatin’ you? The music in this bar stinks, doesn’t it? Just get off work? You live here?  Stuff like that. I’m writing this all down, free associating off the answers that pop into my head from the character. With Evan, I wanted to also find out why he was conducting the empty stage in Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. He started talking to me about his friend Paul Caine and something that had happened to the two of them as kids walking home from school one summer day. I used that as the beginning of what I thought was a short story.

My ideas for stories usually come as a character or characters and I need to figure out who they are and what they want me to know. It sounds kind of weird to talk to myself when I’m talking to the characters, but that’s been the most effective way to do it. I know that the character’s story is viable when I can see that he or she really wants something and there are all sorts of obstacles in the way of getting it. So if you are looking at an idea’s viability in terms of, say, 3-act dramatic structure, the idea needs to evolve beyond the first act into the second conflict act. If I can do that with the idea, I know the idea is viable. At that point, I start to have fun with it.

One idea that came to me as a situation first, i.e. a general experience that a lot of people have but what if the outcome was more science fiction? I’ve been struggling with this story for a couple years now because the experience didn’t have a character connected to it. The first version ended up being a dead end even though structurally it worked. So I decided to start over, changed the main character and made the experience in the past rather than something she was going through during the story. This approach clicked and all sorts of ideas for development came to me. At this point, I knew what the character wanted and I had a good idea what kind of obstacles would be in her way.

So, what I’ve learned over the years is to be open to all possibilities when working with an idea. I’ll need to figure out the main character, then what that character wants in the story, and if there are obstacles in the character’s way. Try analyzing some of your favorite stories to see how this structure works.

How do you develop story ideas? Do you write plot-driven or character-driven stories?