Last time, I ended with the importance of characters. They are the backbone of fiction. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They must happen to someone, and that someone must care about the outcome. If nobody cares that a murder was committed, for example, then there’s no conflict, hence no story.
One of the problems that existed with some science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s is that a significant portion was idea-based and the characters were secondary to the story. Concepts are cool, but unless they connect to the lives of characters–and readers–you might as well be reading a history book. Imagine how dull “Star Trek” would have been without the personalities of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura to liven it up. The slogan of the USA TV network is “Characters Welcome,” and if you watch their shows, you’ll see that many of them focus on memorable characters. We may forget the details of a given episode, but we remember the characters. Memorable characters should be goal as a writer.
A few years back, I created a Character Data Sheet, and a writer friend created a longer version. I’ve attached them to this post. Feel free to explore and use them if you find them helpful. Don’t think that you have to answer all of these questions about your characters. Not all will be appropriate for all story types. But the more you answer, the more you’ll know about your characters and how they’ll act in a given situation in your story.
“Secrets in the cellar (or basement)” is something I heard attributed to Stephen King a few years back. I haven’t been able to locate the quote to verify it, but the gist was that an author should know more about his characters and their secrets than is ever revealed in the story. It’s no different in real life. How many of you know every detail about a friend’s life? Even if you grew up with that person, and there are likely secrets and private experiences you don’t know about? Some of these experiences will drive a person’s behavior years after the event, so why should it be any different with our fictional characters? The more you know about your characters, the more you’ll be able to bring them life for the reader.
Now that you have your basic story idea and your characters in place, what’s next? Scott and I already talked about Openings. If you have read that series, you have the basic tools necessary to write your first scene. It needs to establish character, setting, and conflict and it must hook the reader.
But the next question that is arises is WHEN do you actually begin the story, meaning at what point in the story’s time line (and in the character’s life) do you start? Since stories are about change in the character’s life, often the best place to start is at a point of change, the point at which a critical event will turn the character’s life upside down.
Some writers prefer to start right with that critical event, while others like to begin just before it and show the character’s life before the upset. In our Openings series, several of the novel examples presented began that way. Eyes of the Overworld, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone are three of those. Wild Hawk, Psion, and A Stainless Steel Rat is Born begin with something happening immediately and later backfill with the characters’ previous lives. Our post on Prologues gave some guidance as to whether you should begin with one or launch right into Chapter One.
“When” you begin the story will depend on which type of opening will best allow you to introduce an effective hook for the reader. It’s entirely possible that you will need to begin your story at some inciting event in the distant past of your character (perhaps as a short prologue). Whatever you do, resist the temptation to start with a long explanation or in omniscient narrator mode, where you’re telling the reader everything. Always SHOW. (We’ll do a future blog on that as well.) Sometimes it’s best to begin with some event that the reader will find intriguing but which has no clear explanation for now. You’ll unravel that later.
Although I don’t recommend this as a first consideration, you can–when the story demands it–begin your story near the end of the events, at some critical point, and do the rest of the novel as a flashback up to that point. A number of movies have done it with great success (“Mission Impossible #3” comes to mind as a recent example). There’s nothing wrong with this technique when done well. Done poorly… I advise you do it well or it will come off as a cheap gimmick. Your novel will need plenty of high points if you decide to go this route. Otherwise, it will be like those movies whose only great scenes are the ones you see in the trailer.
I’m going to end on that note because I’ve given you a lot to digest. Get your characters sorted out, decide on a good–and interesting–place to begin your novel. Next time, we’ll discuss how to make writing a novel a less daunting task, and I’ll give you some pointers on how to approach it, a chapter at a time. It can be a scary thing to have tens of thousands of words to write and no idea where they’re all going to come from, but we’ll give you some advice to help make it less daunting. We’ll also discuss the five narrative forms of fiction (description, exposition, dialog, thoughts, action) and how to balance them in your writing.
Next week, we have a guest scheduled on the blog, so stop back.