Most writers are aware that if you have unique, interesting characters, a realistic, logical world, and a plot line that has a sense of purpose while still making sense—then you’re probably perfectly capable of writing something engaging as well as fulfilling (for both you and your reader). Grammar, spelling, sentence structure… these things are important but not as necessary at the core-concept stage. Characters, setting, and plot—those are the three things that set your story apart from fever dreams and reality TV shows. The hard part is just getting all of those things at the same time in the same story.
Now, if you’re reading this post because you want tips on how to create amazing characters and story arcs for your newest piece of writing, you’re about to be incredibly disappointed! Sorry about that. I wish I could tell you how to build amazing people with amazing dreams in amazing worlds, because I feel like I’d be a way better writer by now if I knew. But…Nope. Sorry. Instead, I’m going to be exceedingly honest with you: I have no idea what the hell my characters are going to do until they do it. I don’t know how they’re going to react, or who they’re going to hate or what they’re going to love until I write them. It’s like a horrible Twilight Zone that I just can’t escape because I’m so excited to see what is going to happen next. Sometimes my characters do crazy things and I find myself deleting entire pages while saying “No. Bad MC. Do it right.” And they usually say “Screw you. You want me to do something amazing? Be a better writer.” It’s really quite the abusive relationship, and I’d have you call someone if I didn’t think the operator would laugh.
Here’s how I write my stories.
Step one: Usually, I get one scene stuck in my head. It’ll be amazing, perfect, and crystal-clear. A knight standing over a sobbing child as he raises his sword against a hideous, drooling troll, or a girl somersaulting her way between two armored men before driving her daggers up under a snarling captain’s breastplate. You know. Those kind of things. One scene that just won’t let me go. So I write it down and then build a story around it. (Spoiler alert—this original scene ALMOST ALWAYS gets deleted as the story evolves and progresses. I don’t think I’ve ever actually finished a book that had that first original scene still. It’s kind of strange, now that I think about it).
Step two: Now that I have that one (probably soon-to-be-deleted) scene in my head, the fun REALLY begins. And, any of that step-by-step stuff you were hoping for gets lost. If you wanted a step three in this guide, you should probably stop reading now, because the time for order and straight lines has passed. You think I should know how the character got to that scene from step one? Or what he/she is going to do right after it? Noooo. Nope. No. See, that would be logical. And there is nothing logical about creating entire worlds with something earthly like an old laptop whose “N” key doesn’t work quite right. So yeah, if you want to write like me… throw logic out the window. Right now. Nothing about how I write follows neat little patterns or outlines (which is particularly hilarious when you remember I’m an English teacher and I teach all of my students how to write outlines while swearing up and down that it’ll make things easier). No. Logic has no place here. You might have actually noticed that while reading the previous posts on this blog. You think that I know what I’m going to say when I sit down and start writing on these pages? Hahaha. You’re funny. No, I start with a sentence or a scene or a thought or whatever and I just keep writing stuff down until I feel like it’s out of my head. I would literally vomit words onto paper if I could, because I feel like it would be a faster way of attaining the same result.
Anyway, my story writing is often the same way. From the moment of their conception, my characters are often whole and firm in my mind (even if the situations they’re in are not) and I’ll be damned if they’re going to let me control what they do. All I’m able to do is set up a world around two or three characters and hope to God they end up meeting each other. Then, when they do meet each other, I have to make the situation around them just right, or sometimes they kill each other and I have to start over. You think I’m joking, but I’m really not. In the last book I wrote, I had two characters that were so amazing individually, and so completely different that I always knew if they could just get to know each other they’d be perfect allies. But, the first four times I tried to introduce them to each other I could not create a scenario that didn’t involve them slaying one another in some truly epic fight scenes that I really wish I hadn’t had to delete. It was tragic, really.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But, Tahani, why don’t you just make one of them less violent or one of them more open to conversation?” That’s a good question, anonymous text. Here’s why: Because then they wouldn’t be themselves anymore. To change how a character does something or how he/she reacts to specific situations is often such a vitally intrinsic part of how I see him/her that I would have to remake the character from scratch in order to accommodate those changes. I’ve done that before. Many, many times. My stories have changed drastically simply because of the characters that I’ve allowed to influence them, and that’s one of the reasons I love writing so much. It’s an adventure for me, and them, and (hopefully) the reader as well. The reader just (incorrectly) thinks that I’m more of the pilot and less of the passenger.
There are other things that most people think I have set in my head at the beginning of a novel that I really don’t. For example: in my newest manuscript, my MC does not have any sort of love interest. At all. I’d originally created a character specifically with the idea of them ending up together, but it never worked out. Sigh. I can’t even play matchmaker for the people in my head. I’m hopeless.
Looking back, though… OF COURSE my character didn’t end up with the man I’d created for her. I’d made a warrior—a woman hell-bent on avenging her Order and freeing her people from tyranny. Why would she stop that long enough to fall in love with someone? That’s ridiculous. I’ve always hated reading stories with amazing heroines that are suddenly willing to drop their blood-soaked weapons and make out with some guy somewhere. Ew. Blood is not sexy. It’s sticky and smells like copper and you will taste it on your lovers’ lips. So stop doing it. Also, armor (believe it or not) is not sexy. It’s heavy and hot and smells less like blood and more like old gym socks, and it hurts if you try to arrange yourself in “sexy” poses. But that’s not what’s important about this little rant I have going on here. How many times have you yelled “Now is not the time!” at a novel? If you’re able to actually formulate a number, then I assure you that you’ve done it less than I have. I am a firm believer that if you’re in an adventure/fantasy/science fiction novel then the main obstacle that you’re trying to overcome is more important than your frothy loins. So why did I try to set my MC up with a date? No wonder they fight me so much.
I’m not even entirely sure that character is straight. Seriously, you’d think that I would know my characters’ sexual orientations, but I have no idea. Their personalities and their actions kind of write themselves a lot of the time, so it doesn’t really surprise me that I’m the last to know of these things. Not that it should matter. Why should I know ahead of time if my character likes men or women? (If you’re writing a romance, then that is actually an important question and ignore my musings). I don’t think it should matter if he/she finds love at all (again, romance-writers, please ignore. If your characters don’t find love or some semblance of it during the course of your manuscript, then you’re doing something very, very wrong). Why should my warrior’s worth be determined by his/her choice of mate rather than by… you know, achieving the story’s main goal?
But I might actually be the ONLY person in the world who thinks that, because when was the last time you found a book that didn’t have some sort of romantic subplot in it? I’m at the point now that if I ever want to actually publish some of these stories I’ve written, I’d feel pressured into forcing my characters to fall in love with other characters—which would be as hard to do as arranging a marriage for my real-life child. People say that I should change my characters’ personalities or skin tones (because the fact that she’s Black is wrong for some reason? This is why I sometimes prefer my Fantasy settings—demons and all—to the real world) or their outlooks or their orientation, and I can only shake my head and laugh because I seriously, honestly, cannot do that. I don’t control these characters any more than you do your own teenage daughter. And I love that about them.
So…yeah. I don’t create worlds and characters. They’re already real and full and amazing in my head and I only try to cram them into words that can be read and comprehended. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach a point where I’m actually in control of my novels, but until then I’ll just keep building a story around those scenes that wake me up at night and hope to God I can keep up with what happens after. It’s a crazy, frustrating, downright insane ride sometimes—but I’d rather be on it than just watching from afar.