So I wrote a few posts ago about “Trust vs. Development,” and I said how I was trying to develop less before starting to write. But in my last post on “The Collapse,” I realized that one source of the doubt I was feeling was a lack of development. The project was made even more intimidating by the amount of details I still had to come up with, and so an already long and complex process was that much more difficult and mysterious. Cue the intimidation.
Thus, while some writers can start up from these vague circumstances into spontaneous glory, I’m going to have to do some more development before I feel confident getting started.
But where to begin? Well, in one project, I have a basic outline that works—it’s vague, but the pacing and structure feel solid and it feels like there’s enough story to fill a book. What I mean when I say that is that with just the basic plot points laid out, the spaces between the plot points have a lot going on, as indicated by how much has to occur between each plot point to set the next one up. And the subject matter (the setting and the “daily life” of the characters) has enough flexibility to add in more events whenever needed, meaning it can stretch to fill a lagging pace.
Where this idea is lacking is that while I have a relatively good idea of the protagonist, I know none of the other characters. I have a sense of the protagonist’s family and friends where she starts the story, but fairly quickly she’s transferred somewhere else, and there I know no one (neither does she). I had thought to just make those characters up as I go along, but that means two things: I’m missing out on planning for interesting events around those other characters, and I’m lacking the ability to visualize those scenes because I don’t know the characters enough to flesh them out. It also means I’m struggling to connect with the protagonist because I can’t see her interacting with others—I had thought that might be her problem, but now I’m thinking it’s because I haven’t given her anyone to interact with.
That means I’m going to have to start inventing characters. For me, this can be a difficult process, because I put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with characters who are interesting and unique and work well together. I’m going to try and not worry too much about perfection here, and instead just work on layering in some characters who can grow in the drafting.
First, I look at the setting. Who would be a natural part of this setting? That gives me a few places to start in crafting new characters. Then, I look at the story. Who is my protagonist going to run into and interact with during this or that part of the plot? Who is suggested by the plot but still vague? For example, I have a villain, but right now they’re just identified by a “group”—so how can I develop an individual antagonist to represent that group? Finally, I look at the story in a slightly more “meta” way. Does my protagonist need friends? Enemies? A love interest? (In this story, I’m looking to avoid the last one, since I want to see a female protagonist without a love interest, at least in this first book). Starting with the relationship and then fitting them into the setting and the plot can be an easier way to develop characters to surround your protagonist.
As I come up with characters, I’ll probably come up with more scenes and plot points, or more detailed explorations of the basic plot points. That’s great! Make notes, write out summaries, do however much development works for you. Hopefully, I’ll develop a deeper connection to the story that will help me feel a little less intimidated by it.
When a project is still too vague, starting out can feel even more intimidating than it normally would. By putting some of the development work behind you, you reduce the amount of work you still have to do to just writing. Each individual writer has their own threshold of how much development is too much, and how much spontaneity they desire for the drafting process. For me, the lack of development was making me doubt the whole enterprise, which means I really need to develop more. So if you’re feeling doubt but aren’t sure where it’s coming from, try working out more of the details of your story, setting, and characters. It might just save your project.