by Melanie Figueroa
When you get an idea for your next story, chances are you’ll want to dive right in. You’ll be sitting on the train or walking down the street when the muses decide to grace you with their presence—but you’ll never be next to a computer or notepad, because that’d just be too easy. As you’re rushing to get home, maybe you even jot down a few lines on your phone, on a crumpled receipt you found buried in your bag, or, heck, even your palm.
Fueled by the adrenaline from the rush of new ideas, you sit down and knock out a few thousand words, but then the spark starts to dwindle. You’ve hit a wall. Oh, the spark’s still there, but the ingredients for the perfect fire to keep that spark burning haven’t been built yet. This is why pre-writing can be such a useful tool for writers. While those few thousand words of initial free writing can be a great way to get going, stories rarely appear in our minds fully formed. After that initial burst of inspiration, it’s usually a good idea to pause and start laying the groundwork for your story before you go any further. Writing tends to be about ten percent inspiration and ninety percent hard work—the hard work being all the effort (plotting, character development, and yes, the actual writing part!) that comes with feeding that spark into a roaring fire.
I’ve found that if you don’t get at least a skeleton of your plot down ahead of time, it can be really easy to get lost in your own narrative. Should Character A go down Path 1 or Path 2? When does the climax hit? What’s the central conflict? What are the stakes? Sometimes it’s fun to just see where the story takes you, but it can also be useful to know your main plot points (how you want to open your story, the rising action, the climax, the denouement, etc.) before you plunge your characters into the fray. Which leads me to the second pre-writing point of interest: character development. Characters often take on a life of their own as you write, but in order for them to do so, it helps to know them intimately—flesh and bone and then some—before they even set foot on the page.
There are countless ways to approach pre-writing. For me, character sketches come first. Other writers may choose to begin with a more detailed outline of the plot, but I’d like to focus on where/how to start with character development since it’s what I have the most experience with.
When it comes to character sketches, it’s good to start with the basics. List their physical characteristics, age, ethnicity, etc. What is their background? Who are their friends and family? What are they afraid of, and what do they want and why? Even if hardly any of this makes it into your actual manuscript (in fact, a lot of it probably won’t), filling in these crucial details will help you to write authentically from your characters’ POV(s) and to make sure that their thoughts and actions are genuine and believable as they encounter obstacles and grow throughout the course of the narrative.
At this year’s AWP conference, I attended a panel called “I’m Just Not That Into You: Unsympathetic Characters in Fiction.” Among the panelists was author Hannah Tinti, who teaches creative writing at Columbia University and edits One Story. Hannah gave the audience her five-point plan for creating well-rounded characters, in which she uses the idea of a superhero and villain to demonstrate a way to approach character sketches:
- Costume (What do they physically look like?)
- Superpower (What are they good at?)
- Kryptonite (What’s one thing that could destroy them?)
- Backstory (Where did they come from?)
- Quest/Diabolical Plan (What do they want?)
If this checklist sounds useful to you, why not write it down and tape it to the wall above your desk? Or tuck it away close to where you write—somewhere easy to reach. Pull it out when you are in the pre-writing stages or when you’ve hit a wall with a character, and ask yourself some of Hannah’s questions. Or, better yet, ask your characters directly, and see what they tell you.
The best stories, in my opinion, are stories in which the plot is driven by the characters, not the other way around. Characters advance the plot by being the people they are and making the choices they make. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t map out your story’s plot; just be prepared for things to shift around as your characters come to life on the page and interact with each other and with your plot points. Often, the story will change as your understanding of the characters deepens, which can be frustrating, inspiring, challenging, confusing, and exciting—frequently all at once.
As you shape your story and the people who populate it, keep this in mind: as long as you care about your characters and what happens to them, your readers will, too.