For some writers, you can have a vague sense of the story—the setting, the inciting incident, the main characters—and you just start writing. You find your way from one conflict and scene to the next, developing as you go, and hope for the best. Ultimately, you’re either a freaking genius or you do a multitude of drafts.
But that’s just not how I work. I do want to become more spontaneous in my writing, since rigorous planning has often backfired on me, but I can’t just go off without a somewhat clear plan in sight. It’d be like wandering aimlessly in the woods without supplies: not too bad until nightfall, and then all hell breaks loose.
I know that my inciting incident involves my protagonist meeting another character, and so the first step is figuring out who that other character is. I know they’re significant, I know what relationship (in general) they’re going to have with my protagonist, but I don’t know their personality or their background. So that’s where I’ll start.
Creating characters can work a bunch of different ways. Sometimes, you can just wing it and write them on the fly (I wonder if those two clichéd phrases are related…). Other times, I start with the relationship I want them to have with another character and work from there—are they opposites? Similar? Do they get along or fight? What’s their dynamic, and thus what personality would the character need to create that dynamic? And other times, I start with a character “type” that I want, usually for a group dynamic, and then try to craft a more individual and complex character from there.
Because the story will be very much about this character’s relationship with my protagonist, I’m going to start with what dynamic I want them to have.
When you’re creating things out of nowhere, you have to brainstorm. My favorite technique is to lay back with music on and just try and imagine things, following images and dialogue and seeing where they lead. You can also make lists, do writing prompts, or (the riskiest!) look at what other people have done and see if you can “borrow” different elements (with a lot of changes!!). Just start from somewhere (“what about this…?”), think about it for a bit, and see if it stirs up any interest.
Once you have an idea for the character (or scene, or setting, etc.), you can analyze how it might work from a “meta” level, but I’ve been burned by this many times before. That being said, for me it’s practically become automatic—my mind immediately catalogs the idea and plays out all the different possible outcomes of using it. At some point, though, you just have to pick something no matter how imperfect or give up altogether (which is NEVER an option!). Try and remind yourself that the “perfect” option that will work on every level does not exist, and never will.
I think the best dynamic for my story is one with conflict but also a chance for real bonding between the characters. That means the characters should have superficial differences that will create conflict, but have similarities on a deeper level that will allow them to bond. And there will also be plenty of external conflict surrounding them that is beyond their personalities.
As you decide things, there will be doubt. But you have to press forward with your choices and keep reminding yourself what your end goal is—a draft. After that, things can change.
Some details you have to get in place before you start drafting, for me at least. This means major characters and the basic plot points.
We’ve got our major characters (except the villain…?) and we’ve got our inciting incident—so how do we find the plot?