Welcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs (2WB for those in the know), one of a series of posts in which we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.
Robine: Denise, you and I approach the daunting task of creating back stories for our characters quite differently. Unlike you, when I sit down to write–at least in works longer than my 750-to-800-word “vignettes”–I like to have a clear idea of where I’m going. Not that I need to outline the entire novel and set it in stone, but I do need to make a road map.
Two aspects of that road map for me are
(1) creating the “what-if” sentence:
What if a woman pushing forty, who agreed to a child-free marriage to a man 10 years her senior, now wants a child of her own, but finds her world turned upside down with the appearance of 6-year-old boy her husband had fathered with another woman on the day before her wedding to him.
and (2) creating the back stories of the main characters.
That includes what they look like, where they grew up, who their parents were, what they like/dislike, what they do for a living, and much more—in other words, anything that may affect what they will do/think in the unfolding story.
In Marshall’s Child, which I haven’t touched in quite a while, I have four main point-of-view (POV) characters: Kat, the lead; Marshall, her husband and the opposition character; Shaya, the confidante; and Jake, the love interest.
Despite my best efforts to create their back stories before starting out, when it came time to do the actual writing, I found that I had clothed the characters in outfits that clearly weren’t theirs. I was forced to rewrite, and rewrite, and reshape once again not only the back stories but also the characters themselves because the characters had changed ages, careers, parents, mannerisms, and more.
Even with this rewriting, several readers of the most recent draft complained that neither Kat nor Marshall were likeable–she too much of a wimp; he too much of a bully with no redeeming traits. Why did they get married to begin with and why were they still together, the readers wondered. I apparently still didn’t have it right. When I return to revising the novel, I’ll have lots of work to do to fix it (and them).
So, after I have done what I can to revise this novel and am ready to consider a new piece of work, I will be rethinking my approach to character development entirely. What will I do differently? Don’t know yet, but you’ll be the first to hear!
Denise: You are definitely more methodical than I am. I find too much planning inhibits my creative flow, such as it is. But I, too, need to have a general idea of the plot. I recently tried short stories as a break from an attempt at a novel, and I’m liking that the plot is so much more manageable.
I start with a 30-second summary of the story. For the second story in my Chimera series, it’s this:
Chloe, a 14-year-old girl, moves to a new town after mother Caroline dies and is incarnated as a Chimera. The Chimera exists in a mythical plane. Caroline’s consciousness inhabits the body of a lion, with a second personality in the form of a black snake named KaLini as the creature’s tail. Chloe and her new friends confront an invasion by a terrifying creature from the Cthulu mythos, which was triggered by an avant-garde artwork commissioned by Mass MoCA. Chloe and her friends form a team with the Chimera to save the day.
The next step is to work on the character’s back story, but I don’t try to go too far with that at first. For me, it’s an iterative process. When I have a bit of the back story, I try to imagine what it’s like to be that character, and then I try to write a scene.
As my understanding of the characters grows, the way the plot moves from point A to point B is also developing. I might add to the back story, or change the plot a little. For example, I just wrote a scene from the Cthulu monster’s POV, and that’s causing me to re-think the ending.
Not having a complete road map is a little scary, but then, fear is a great motivator. It sounds as though you’re more comfortable with more advance planning, but from what you said, in practice your process is also iterative.
Robine: You’re brave; writing without a net. My back stories may change somewhat but I’ve established major plot points that I’m heading toward and so far they’ve given the novel (and me) some direction.
Next post: Point of View