How to Build a Story from a Spark

Posted by on October 10, 2006 in how to, super secret projects, uncategorized | 6 comments

A few weeks ago, there was a lot of discussion about writing process and how different novelists create their work.  I didn’t have time to engage then (I was, um, too busy meeting a deadline, resulting from the way I create my work πŸ™‚ )  There was a follow-up discussion launched by technosage, which I did join.  You can read that thread, and some of my initial comments here.  Technosage invited me to expand on those ideas, so I’m going to, but in my own little corner of the world – you know, in case the interest has totally passed.

The specific question at hand was how expand a spark of a character into the fire of a story.

I have started every one of my novels with a firm notion of who the main characters are.  I muddle through their personalities (in my head, not on paper or notecards), playing with quirks and traits that will – if all goes well – make them interesting, but will also make them distinctive from other characters I’ve created in the past.  For example, I’m about to start writing the Super Secret Synopsis for a new chicklit paranormal series.  I know who the main character is, and I know a lot of things about her personality.  Some of those things have been specifically chosen so that she ISN’T Jane Madison.  (For example, my new character is going to have a hearty aversion to Shakespeare.)

Once I’ve spent a day or week or fortnight muddling about the character, then I start to sketch out the plot.  The plot is tied directly to the character.  If my plot involves the high stakes world of female bodybuilding, then it’s unlikely that my main character is going to be a long-haired, long-nailed, anorexic beauty queen more obsessed with her wardrobe than with her training schedule.  Instead, the plot has to flow organically beside the characters.  Certainly, the characters will be carried by the plot at times, and they might end up at places they had not anticipated, but they can’t end up in a totally different world, facing completely different challenges, with completely different supporting or competing casts.

To take an absurd example – caste-bound Rani from the Glasswright Series is not going to pop brightly in Jane Madison’s library, ask about the life of Pilgrim Jair, and the hop back into her own story.

There are *times* when I modify a character to match a plot (or a narrative quirk).  For example, Jane Madison didn’t originally have two masters degrees (in English and Library Science.) She picked up the English degree when the Shakespeare allusions became too thick for the average librarian to have at her finger-tips.  The core of the character remained the same, but the specifics were tweaked.

If there’s a continuum between plot building characters and characters building plot, my writing is probably at about 90% character, 10% plot. 

Where do the rest of you fall on that continuum?  Have you read books that seem completely dominated by one or the other (or a totally different) method of construction?

Mindy, analyzing the process even as she works it


  1. Interesting question! I think my own continuum is roughly analogous to yours…how I perceive books and what the author might have actually experienced or intended can vary. But I tend to turn off fast from reading books in which the characters appear to be quick cutouts stuck there in service of the plot (and far worse, in service of ideas, which leads to straw men representing the Opposing View).

    • I strive to make even my throw-away characters have *some* quirk that makes them interesting, even if they’re only “onstage” for a page or two.

      If I really don’t have any reason to make them human/specific, I try to gloss over them, by avoiding giving them a name or any other story status.

  2. In all of the books and articles about writing that I’ve read over the years, one thing that stood out for me is that stories are what happen to people, and that if the reader doesn’t care about the character, they won’t care about the story. I like the way you put it into action. πŸ™‚

    • Thanks! πŸ™‚

      I, too, care about what happens to the people. I think that’s why I get so cranky when people give away the endings of movies/books/plays in reviews. That give-away makes me stop worrying/caring about the people!

  3. There’s quite a lot to think about in this post.

    Personally, I like stories that are either character or plot-driven. To me, the clincher is how it is written, if it helps me understand the character better, or it can totally sweep me away. I don’t even know how to put it in words.

    As for writing, I really do not know. I have a tendency of building a world, or a pattern before I work with that. Most of the time it is a scene that appears in my head and I’ll try to puzzle out what is going on, kind of like looking at a picture. And I’m not even a visual or spatial intelligence!

    Oh, the idea of Rani popping into the library made me smile. She remains one of my favourite characters because she was so strong and as a reader, I could identify with her.

    • It sounds as if you are a “whole” thinker – not visual or spatial, but examining the “whole” of the story’s environment!