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Posts Tagged ‘character development’

One of the things I’ve been working on lately is developing the idea for my next novel. I had such a great time writing my last project and was so pleased with how it came out that, while I want to do something different, I still want to take the magic of that forward with me.

Typically when I start a new project, I spend time brainstorming, often with a big whiteboard where I can use different colored markers to daisy-chain ideas as they evolve. After I feel I’ve come up with a workable world, characters, and a plot rich with potential conflicts, I start on an outline. I work and rework that outline for awhile and then begin the first draft.

This time, though, I decided to try something different. Before moving on to outlining, I started playing around with different characters, backstory events, and world-building elements by writing shorts. It’s been fun and also extremely illuminating.

Characters that looked fantastic on the whiteboard aren’t coming to life once they’re thrust into a narrative structure. Other characters are stealing the show. Since the novel will be science fiction, putting future technology into scenarios where it has to work and feel real has highlighted problems as well as seeded new and better ideas. Bringing events to life that are meant to be part of the novel’s backstory is helping me refine and hone the novel’s present.

Some of the shorts actually work as shorts, but plenty of them don’t. That isn’t the point, though. The point is to build and explore the ideas, improving them in advance of actually drafting the novel. This approach has afforded a low cost medium to experiment and further develop plot ideas and characters before I invest in the novel itself.

Plus, fun!

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I’m getting ready to begin outlining a new novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where ideas come from and how we develop them into something rich and compelling.

Everyone has a different process, and everyone’s process changes as they learn and mature as writers.  I know when I first began writing, I’d get hit with an idea (“oooh, shiny!”) and immediately start writing with absolutely no thought to plot, conflict, change, character arcs, or really anything else.  I’d just roll with it.

For some authors (so-called “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants without an outline), this process works great (Stephen King is reportedly a pantser).  But as I learned more about writing, I began to feel paralyzed by all the things I now knew I needed to make happen in any given story.  To shake free of this deer-in-the-headlights feeling, I had to start doing more planning and now I’ve become something of a plotter (outlining in advance).  Maybe when I gain greater confidence, I’ll shift back towards pantsing again.  Who knows?  Developing and writing a novel is a pretty fluid thing, and whether we’re pantsers or plotters, our ideas and writing typically evolve and morph as we go.

None of this really answers the question, though, of where we start.  You’ve got an idea.  Maybe it’s a particularly vivid image, or a character’s voice yammering in your head, or some thoughts about a great adventure, or a setting you’re just aching to flesh into a whole world.  Whatever it is, you have to take that idea and blow it up like a big balloon, filling it with air and making it buoyant and whole.

Where does that first big breath come from?

Do you start with your protagonist, developing them from a few scratched ideas on a bar napkin into an ambulatory, reach-out-and-touch you creation, or do you start with plot, with the events that will sweep that character up and change their life forever?

So far, in my writing, no matter what my kernel of an idea is, I tend to start with character, then world, then plot.  It’s hard for me, at least at this point in my career, to devise a twisty, compelling plot if I don’t have a handle on the person it’ll most effect and the setting in which it’ll take place.  So I spend a lot of time working on that character.  What’s his/her backstory, how did they get where they are and what advantages and handicaps has that given them?  What about their family, their friends, their lovers?  How have they supported, undermined, or betrayed them?  What does the character look like and how do they think?  What are their quirks and tics?

Often the answers to at least some of these questions are tied pretty intimately to setting.  The world we live in and the culture we’re a part of have a huge impact on how we think and act.  Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, but I pretty much can’t create real-seeming characters if I don’t have at least a partial handle on the world they inhabit.

All that work, and still I’m only poised at the gate, fingers hanging above the keyboard, waiting to type sentence one.  Like a champagne bottle corked and ready to blow, I’ve got this whole character (and usually a grip on several secondary characters) and world-building just bursting to get out of my head and swan dive into an adventure.  Only then do I plunge into the plot.  Or maybe I just start writing and use a “pantser” method to find the plot.

Maybe, though, I’ve got it totally backwards.  Maybe my process is leaving me hamstrung and playing catch up, putting my characters through their paces in a story that’s limp and unstructured.

I’d love to hear from all of you.  Where do you start?  When you sit down to write that first sentence, how much planning have you done and what kind of planning have you done?  Do you start with characters, with world, or with plot?  And how does that choice effect the way the rest of your process (and your novel) unfolds?

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Confession: at heart, I’m awfully bloody minded.  I love writing action and fight scenes.  After all, violence is a deep-rooted component of the human animal.  Culture just can’t beat it out of us and, instead, has itself become permeated with justifications for violent behavior (from the galling – things like FGM – to the “acceptable” – like American football).

Unfortunately, crafting compelling action scenes — especially battles — is one of my writing weaknesses.  In doing research to address this shortcoming, I’ve come across several good sources.  Being someone who likes to share her toys, I’ll pass what I’ve found on to you.

First, Marie Brennan has started a series of blog entries on writing fight scenes over on LJ – and from what I’ve read so far, they are going to be awesome.  One thing she points out is the importance of bringing story and character development into your fight scenes.  The unfolding and outcome of fights drives plot.  How someone fights, what they will and won’t do, reveals a lot about their character.  I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never really thought about it quite this way–although in hindsight it seems perfectly obvious that character development should be central to any fight scene.  Also, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here…after all, we’ve all read novels where we skip the action scenes because “nothing happens” — meaning they neither advance the plot nor illuminate the characters.

Another issue I struggle with is developing the strategy aspects of larger battles.  My writing group rightly pointed out that some of the big battles in the first draft of my novel had a sort of “line up and charge” flavor to them.  I don’t have a military background to draw upon (nor do I know anyone who does), so I’ve had to turn to research.  For this, I’ve found a variety of sources really useful.

I started in the obvious place and read Sun Tzu’s the Art of War.  A series of maxims and advice (asserted by Sun Tzu and elaborated upon/interpreted by historic Chinese military types) the Art of War takes a Taoist approach to strategy–basically applying knowledge to deal with disharmony.  This was useful because it made me think outside the individual battle scene I was trying to write and look at the larger picture, asking myself:  is this battle really necessary or wise?  Will fighting and winning or losing it show my protagonist to be skilled, inexperienced, rash, measured, merciful, or foolish?

In a way, the ideas in the Art of War are all about character.  The kind of military leader you are is revealed through the ways knowledge is acquired (through strategic assessment of your opponent, the terrain, the weather, and so forth) and applied (through careful planning).  There are also, of course, a lot of useful insights about the best use of tactics like retreats, ambushes, sieges, and so forth.

A member of my reading group (thanks, Eric!) also suggested Rome: Total War as a source of inspiration about battle strategy and combat (and there are many iterations of this game, including more recent ones).  To avid gamers, this is going to seem obvious, but for me it was a bit of a revelation:  exposure to the visual (and directorial) elements of a battle on your computer screen is AWESOME.  It’s also helpful from a writing point of view in that it improves your birds-eye view understanding of troop placement and movement, use of terrain, and how different sorts of strategies play themselves out under different conditions.  Through trial and error, you can find out which strategies are stupid and which are genius.  Plus, now I have a fun new procrastination tool in my arsenal 😉

There will always be elements of fight scenes (be they one-on-one tussles or huge battles) that are hard to recreate just through research.  The smells and sights, the chaos, the sensation of fear or adrenaline (or, probably, both)–I’ll never understand those first-hand unless I pick a fight with someone, which is about as likely as me walking on the moon.  But still, just using the few tools discussed in this post, my action writing has improved ten-fold.

Of course, as always, I welcome advice or suggestions from you all.  What are your tips for researching and writing fight scenes?

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