Six impossible things

Making stuff up: Putting it all Together

Looking at the story development process the way I have been in these last few posts makes it seem logical and straightforward, but that’s only because I was looking at one angle at a time. In actual fact, when one is making stuff up for a real story, it’s a lot messier than I’ve been making it sound.

This is because making stuff up does not happen in nice, neat little compartments. Everything the writer invents affects everything else in the story, in small ways and in large ones. If you plug James T. Kirk into the role of Hamlet, you will not end up with a plot that goes the way Hamlet does, because Kirk simply would not go about things the way Shakespeare’s Hamlet does. If Kirk wanted evidence that the ghost was truthful, he wouldn’t fake insanity and then have the players recreate the murder scene in hopes that he could learn something from Claudius’ reaction; no, he’d sneak into Claudius’ room and search his drawers for poison.

Similarly, the setting and the plot will affect the characters, both in terms of the type of people they are at the start of the story, and in the way they change and grow. A character who, in Chapter 3, is dangled off the edge of a hundred-foot cliff and barely rescued in time may develop a fear of heights as a result, but he/she isn’t very likely to develop claustrophobia from it. If you suddenly decide that your main character needs to be an expert skier, you will have a much harder time explaining how they learned if they grew up in the Amazonian rain forest than if they grew up in Vale, Colorado.

The real trick to making stuff up at the start of the story is to not work at it methodically, one aspect at a time. If you spend six weeks hammering out every detail of the plot, and only then turn to making up your characters, you are likely to resist making up characters who have interesting, compelling, or fascinating traits that wouldn’t quite fit into all that hard work you’ve already done. If you write up an Encyclopedia Imaginaria for your worldbuilding and culture, and then go looking for plot and characters, you’re likely to resist changing anything you’ve set up, even if it would make the plot more interesting or the characters more sympathetic and realistic.

Instead, what I do is to start with … well, whatever I got first, whether that’s a character or a setting or a plot idea. I elaborate that a little, and in the process I get pieces of something else. For instance, I’m thinking about what my characters are like, and in the process I figure out some of their backstory – the idealistic wannabe dark magician got that way because he was born to a family of light magicians, who thought he was going to be a light mage, only then he turned out to have dark magic instead.

At that point, I switch to making up setting/culture stuff, because obviously the light magicians have a different set of cultural beliefs from the dark magicians. That culture has formed the beliefs and expectations of my wannabe-dark-magician, which is where I started, but it doesn’t take long before I am not just making up the small town where he was born; I’m making up the way the kingdom is governed, what kind of teachers and soldiers they have, what their music is like.

Somewhere in there, I start thinking about just how my wannabe is going to meet up with my main character – By accident on the road? Turning up as a challenger at the castle? And then I’m thinking about exactly how and where this happens, and I’m into plot incidents. And as soon as I settle on the specifics of the meetup, I have a third character whose reactions are important, and I’m back to the intersection of plot and character. But Character C is a True Believer in the traditions of the Dark…and I’m back to a different bit of setting and culture, the dark side, which may reflect on some of the things I made up about my wannabe’s backstory, which means I have to tweak the meetup events.

And the True Believer’s opinions suggest some interesting plot developments for the mid-book, so I fill that in on my plot summary, or maybe on a list of “stuff that could maybe happen in the middle but I’m not sure yet.”

At some point in all this bouncing around, I will hit something that is really exciting and I just love…but that doesn’t quite fit with something else. I really want that plot incident I just thought of, where D wants to run away from home to start a rock band, only the backstory for D has him as an aspiring Evil Overlord, and I’d have to change his whole personality. Or I adore the notion of my wannabe being gloomy and angsty, but that means I’ll have to change some of his backstory (and rethink a lot of my ideas about the society he comes from) to make it plausible that he ended up with this personality. I have to pick one or the other, and make changes in what I’ve made up so far to make it fit.

This sort of thing is relatively easy to do at the start of a story, because the only thing you’re fiddling with is your notes and your ideas. You don’t have 10,000+ words that you have to go back and make fit with this new idea you’ve had. It still requires revamping your vision of what this story, these characters, and that place are going to be like, but usually it’s all still squishy enough that you can do this. (And if you find you really can’t make the new notion fit, you can always set it aside to use in a different book.)

It’s a bit harder to handle this kind of upset in mid-book, which is what I want to talk about next week.

4 Comments
  1. I find myself extremely reluctant to change world-building or background in order to match a character. On that path I see a sign reading “this way lies madness.” Or if I do change the setting to match, it’s always at the point where the character isn’t a character yet, but rather an archtype or stereotype, or an example from a class.

    But I usually do start with a world-building element of some sort (often a character-type element: “Harem slaves are the best-trained magicians in the world”), and then I produce some combination of characters and an initial incident, and only after that do I try to come up with a plot complete with ending.

    Which may be why I have so much trouble coming up with plots. I leave coming up with an ending to the last because it’s hard, and coming up with an ending is hard because I leave it to the last.

  2. “This sort of thing is relatively easy to do at the start of a story, because the only thing you’re fiddling with is your notes and your ideas. You don’t have 10,000+ words that you have to go back and make fit with this new idea you’ve had.”

    Yes, this.

    I’ve been editing, and I swear I’ve rewritten my beginning at least five times, which of course, affects the rest of the book. I wish I were better at thinking through all the angles *before* I write, rather than after I’ve written the whole thing.

  3. I’ve said before that my first drafts look like slightly annotated outlines. I go back and fix things, take things out, put things in, not once but many times. (Five is not very many.) But whatever works for you….

  4. it’s a lot messier than I’ve been making it sound.

    That may explain why these posts haven’t really been clicking for me, even the characters-to-plot one (which I really expected to). Messy, right.

    My process seems to go a lot more on the Kirk-in-Hamlet line — here’s the scenario, obviously he would do X. I don’t have to stop to think about it, it’s just there.

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