To quote a Joss Whedon line. Yep, huge Firefly and Serenity fan here. Although, as soon as I wrote the header I swear I heard Village People singing ‘Can’t stop the music’. Anyway, it’s true that you can’t stop the signal, but it’s equally true that you don’t have to tune into it.
For the last few days I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about creativity and where my ideas come from, because I have a process that often works for me. Some people get a story idea and then find the characters needed to tell it. Others develop a character and then find a story to fit around it. Others do both, and some find a specific theme they like and find a thousand ways to tell it.
In CogWorld, the tentative title of the manuscript I’m working on, I had an idea for a character. She’s been rattling around inside my head, avoiding housework and burning pots and pans, for about six months. The thing was, I didn’t have a story I wanted to waste her in.
Elements of ideas started coming together and sticking, like shit to a blanket. I’ve always been fascinated by good steampunk art, and then one night right in the middle of doing something else, I saw CogWorld, and I had a place for my character.
Back in late April, Chuck Wendig asked us to write a few paragraphs about our protagonist. Here’s mine. You’ll have to scroll down a little to see it, if you’re interested at all.
So, Miriam who becomes Miria but to me is Miri, is finally coming to life. A few of you who know me outside of this blog know that I occasionally use visual prompts to get more insight into my character. I find an image that looks to me like who I want to describe, and that image adds dimensions. Sometimes, too, I consider the characteristics of people I know, or I imagine the characteristics of people I bump into, and those imaginings help me to create other characters.
I think that if you do this, you make your work as a writer more fulfilling, because you have prompts to work from rather than doing all the hard work of creating from scratch. I can tell you that in CogWorld I am developing Miri from a real person who has the qualities I want her to have. I’ve also come up with six other characters so far who have qualities I want to portray, and some of you I’ve discovered in here might be surprised to know that those characters are based on some of my perceptions about you. To be clear, the characters are not you – I don’t know you – but I think we all form some sort of perception about people we interact with. Now don’t go getting all literary and ‘best behaviourish’; I’m not writing for your posterity, unless you want to be a steampunk, that is, and you’d probably never guess correctly anyway because I’m pathologically opposed to being obvious.
I’ve always found that my best stories come from the characters, and not from having a story and fitting the characters into it, if you see what I mean. One of the best ‘supporting actresses’ I’ve ever written was based on a woman I never even spoke to, but briefly saw in Frankfurt Airport (Germany) between flights. Her look and body language while she spoke to someone else I don’t know just rang a bell with an idea I had, and at 38,000 feet she came to life and I knew with certainty how she was going to live, act, respond, and die. Yes, I killed that character, but usually they live.
So, over the last month or so I’ve had a fair few non-blog chats with other people who like to write. It’s not for me to tell you how to improve; I haven’t had a bestseller, you know? And this isn’t advice I’m giving you, either. I’ve just been thinking for a few weeks about how I imagine and construct stories, and all the ones I like the best have strong characterisations. My page stats here and elsewhere also tell a story, as unreliable and misleading as page stats can be. What I know, unreliably, is that 88% of all the big hits happen when I write in the first person, even though literary types tend to sneer at FP. Fuck them; they don’t have to read my stuff then and I eagerly await seeing their shit hit #1 on the NYT Bestseller List.
Averaged, over 90% of the comments, likes, stats, etc, go to the stories that have strong emotions. Strong action never rates as well. All we have to do is go blog hopping to see that the more popular blogs are the ones that have a strong emotional content.
But I don’t want to discuss page hits and stats; they were just illustrating a point. If you’re writing for your own enjoyment and you like having a bit of fun online with others, the pressure is off and rules of writing don’t apply. If you want to be an ‘author’, then maybe it’ll help you to broaden your horizons and consider other ideas, if yours are fixed and unsatisfactory to you. Some people write a story and the characters are just there to transport it. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a story idea. Me, I’m a lazy writer. I develop characters and let them do all the heavy lifting, letting them and their experiences and perceptions tell the story. Many hands, and all that.
So if you haven’t already considered it, you might observe people in their native habitat, conceptualise them into a character you find interesting, and see where those characters go when you throw them all together.
Okay, back to CogWorld.