Starting in the Wrong Place

They say that you ought to start with character. Know your protagonist; know how they eat breakfast, know their hopes and fears; then make bad things happen to them. Make their worst nightmares come true.

Excellent advice. Except that I've realised that I never work like that. I've always found those "get to know your character" exercises artificial and mystifying. I feel as if I'm inventing stuff for the sake of it. Those characters, assembled from desires and needs and physical quirks, feel as if they're put together like robots, and like robots, they never really come alive. (This is just me, I hasten to say, I'm sure this approach does work for lots of writers.)

I've realised that where I start, almost invariably, is with a place.

I wrote pages of notes about Tremaris before I knew anything about Calwyn or Darrow or Samis or Halasaa. Calwyn and Darrow appeared in my head as figures in the scenery. I saw the Art Deco architecture of Eloise's abandoned house in Cicada Summer, long before I knew anything about Eloise's history. And Crow Country grew out of a determination to write a fantasy set in the Australian landscape; I had at least three separate plots and sets of characters before the story settled in its current form.

And now I'm wrestling with the New Guinea book. All I've known for certain about it for the past year or so is where it's set - in the Highlands of PNG, in the last days before Independence, in the weird cocooned expatriate society that existed in the 1970s.

I've had three characters dancing around each other, but I couldn't bring them into focus. Their personalities, their hopes and fears, were all blurry to me, I couldn't quite make them gel in relation to each other, their conversations and interactions didn't quite work. Was my girl protag too angry? Was my older male protag too breezy, my younger one too shy? I swapped their personalities, reinvented them, threw them away, changed their genders and their names (names matter!), resurrected them in altered form.

And now, at last, I think I can see Julie and Simon and Andy clearly. I can hear their voices. I'm digging out scenes I wrote six months ago and thinking, that's not too bad. If I tweak this piece of dialogue... if I change the voice a little... I can still use this stuff.

And who makes these rules, anyway?

1 comment:

  1. I think the whole 'know what your character ate for breakfast' thing is a myth, and not particularly helpful, unless what your character ate for breakfast is important to the story. However, as you write each scene, it is important to know what your character has just been doing, and what they're about to do next. This advice comes courtesy of Kalindra Ashton.