Here’s a Sample from Discovering Characters

Getting Ideas

What’s the story you want to tell?

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What’s in your mind?

Anything? Everything? Both are terror-inducing problems for writers to have. Let’s back way, way up, up the hill, around the curve, and start at the beginning of the beginning.

Stories start in various ways. Countless writing craft seminars and conference panels and online courses will use the classic “What if?” scenario as every writer’s starting point. While that’s a way, it’s not the only way, and it’s certainly not the way that many writers begin.

“What if?” is not even the true starting point.

If we consider a story like a plant, especially one that fruits, then the “What if?” is the moment when the plant pushes through the soil to reach air and sunlight. “What if?” is the vision of the plant’s growth, as it transforms, enlarges with stems and leaves, even flowers and fruits. Yet through its growth, the plant will remain firmly rooted in the soil.

That’s where story ideas start: the soil. The dirt. Nourishing. Rich. Filled with all sorts of organisms wiggling through it, including the microscopic cells that enrich the dirt for the planting of seeds.

The incipient seed planted in the soil of your mind is not “What if?” The seed can be a variety of ideas, ever personal, ever burgeoning, ever morphing.

Many writers are asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” That question asks for the seminal inspiration that strikes the writer and leads to the idea pushing out of the mind and onto the page.

New writers have a constant fear that they will run out of ideas.

On her website, Robin Storey shares the amusing statement by Robertson Davies that “I don’t get them [ideas], they get me.” (17 Sept. 2017)

Storey goes on to share that characters were “taking residence in my head and nagging at me constantly until I wrote their story.”

In his blog “Where Do You Get your Ideas?”, Neil Gaiman[1] says he used to lie when people asked this question. He lied because people were disappointed when he told the truth, that the ideas came out of his head.

Here’s Gaiman’s wisdom from that blog: “An idea doesn’t have to be a plot notion, just a place to begin creating. Plots often generate themselves when one begins to ask oneself questions about whatever the starting point is.”

The place to begin, the what-if? The idea that pops up, the seed that plants itself in the fertile dirt of your brain. The seed might have been planted years ago or yesterday. All that matters to you the writer is that the seed breaks its husk and transforms into a seedling reaching through the soil for the air and sunlight.

All you have to do is let the idea come forth, feed it the air and sunlight, let it grow its stems and leaves, and soon it will flower and fruit.

The seed for one book may not look like the seed for the next book.

You may have a handful of seeds that all look the same, and when the ideas push out, they appear identical with the same stems and seeds, but the flowers and fruits are very different.

As a writer, your job is to help the husk come off the seed, give the soil whatever nutrients that the seed needs to germinate a beginning plant, and shape it into the form it needs—with roots and leafy stem—that will power it to emerge from the dirt into the air and sunlight.

So, the seed is in the dirt of your brain.

You have multiple seeds there. Grab the one that you want to work with. You know, the one that keeps popping up whenever you think about writing.

What next? Well, where do you want to start?

  • Template?
  • Character interview?
  • Type of character?
  • Sketching out a scene?

All of these are valid approaches. Whatever sparks ideas is all that matters. The creation of more ideas is all that matters.

Wherever you start, your fertile dirt-brain will quickly decide your approach to the story: central character, evil confronted, perspective, genre, length, and more. Let it flow. Don’t stop it.

This book will present quite a lot about developing characters.

Here’s another metaphor—or three. Discovering your characters will be like entering a vast country or moving into a strange neighborhood or traveling along a road you’re not quite certain about. Your characters will reveal to you the writer certain things that they would never want revealed to anyone else. As a writer, you can commit to keeping their secrets and dark desires and past traumas and hopeful dreams. Or you can blast them into the world through the medium of story.

It’s your decision. As a writer, everything is your decision.

That’s incredibly freeing.

And scary.

And fun.

[1] Neil Gaiman: “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” Cool Stuff: Essays,, ©Harper Collins Publishers.


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