#14: Where Do Characters Come From?

Dear Story Nurse,

A recurring problem I encounter in my writing across the board is that I’ll come up with very cool ideas for worlds and settings, but then become completely stumped with inventing characters and stories for them.

I’d hazard that part of this problem stems from the fact that I come from a fanfiction writing background where characters are pre-supplied, though I’ve been working on original stories for several years now. I’ve got no problem worldbuilding, either in an already-extant canon nor an original world of my own.

When I have a story idea come to me already with characters and rudimentary plot, I’m fine—the problem only shows up when I have a world but no story, and then I find myself stumped, brain running in circles as I try to force a plot to happen. I sometimes feel like I’m just picking random plots out of a hat and trying to paste them into the setting, which is obviously not ideal—the plot should be just as interesting as the setting.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to work on these issues, or how to apply the creative juices from worldbuilding to character/plot development? Helpful writing exercises?

Thank you so much!

—Plotless (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m coming back to writing after a bit of a hiatus. There’s lots of general skills I’m working on, but most of them are improving. Except for character creation. I used to write original characters all the time as a kid, but I seem to have forgotten how.

I have an idea for a portal fantasy story (probably novel length). I’m really excited about it, and the general world-building is going really well, but I’m struggling to actually start the first draft, because I can only come up with really vague idea of the characters I’m writing about. Conventional advice according to Google is that if I start writing my characters will develop over the course of the first draft, but I can’t develop them enough to figure out how to start.

Is there some way to push through this and get my story started? Or is there something else I can do to get a grip on my characters before I start?

Thanks very much,

Character Catch-22 (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing scifi/fantasy fiction for fun since I was a kid—for fun, and for sharing with my friends. But recently I’ve been finding a lot less fun and a lot more frustration, because everything I write kind of peters out, and I’d really like, just once, to actually finish something.

I’m one of those people who gets super into worldbuilding. I have stacks of notebooks filled with little ideas, or bits of description, or pages and pages of how this alternate universe could work. Basically, if I were writing an encyclopaedia, I’d be golden. But an encyclopaedia does not a story make, and I want to write something someday that someone might actually want to read.

I think the place where I struggle is characters. I can look at a world I’ve made, and see where the friction points are, like “well hey if that thing is banned, is there someone trying to smuggle it?”. I can look at a formal plot structure and think of things to put in the boxes, more or less. I can write the idea of a character, like where they live and how they grew up and how their background might throw up some threads that could be put into a plot. But when it comes to wants and desires and behaviours and three-dimensionality, well… I’m more likely to end up falling into an existential crisis about what I want out of life, and that helps nobody.

Are there technical exercises to help with this kind of thing? Do I just need to plough through 70,000 words with a cardboard cutout of a character and then look back and… redraft somehow? (I have actually tried that, several times, but I tend to reach a point where I just can’t find the motivation to keep writing something so flat and dull. I think I need something to break this cycle of “shiny idea!/start writing/realise the characters have no character/hit wall/feel miserable/different shiny idea!/…”)

—Dweller in the Well-Painted Doldrums (she/her)

Dear letter writers,

As you can see from one another’s letters, you’re not alone in this! I wanted to include all three of your letters because I think some comparisons will be instructive, and because you all have much more in common than you might realize. You cite different sources of difficulties with character creation: being used to working with other people’s characters, coming back to writing after a hiatus and having rusty skills, and having your own internal anxieties get in the way. But if your circumstances were strongly and significantly affecting your writing, they would affect all aspects of your writing, and you might not be able to write at all. Instead, you’re faulting your circumstances for something that’s actually about you: right now, by training or inclination or some combination, you’re much more comfortable worldbuilding than you are sitting down with some characters and turning them into real people.

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#10: Finding Your Story’s Voice

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m struggling with voice on this particular project. The protagonist is a Yankee girl in the South during World War II. It’s a young adult historical fantasy and I want the character to sound young and naive, but without alienating the likely older-YA readers who will pick up the book. Over the course of the book, she should grow up quite a bit and confront her own assumptions and mistakes, but at the beginning, she’s off-putting to readers. I can’t tell if this is on me (the voice just isn’t working for whatever reason) or if it’s uncomfortable/unusual to have a bubbly almost stream-of-consciousness female voice in a historical fantasy and that’s what is throwing my beta readers off? I’ve tried rewriting the beginning of the novel differently but I keep coming back to the original version. Thoughts? Thank you in advance!

—Katie (they/them)

Dear Katie,

Thanks for writing in. This is one of those questions that’s hard to definitively answer without seeing the manuscript, so I’m going to noodle around some ideas about what might be going on here, and some of those ideas will be useful to you and some won’t. Fortunately, saying “Nope, that’s not the problem I’m having” can be its own kind of useful troubleshooting sometimes, and I hope it is in this case.

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#4: When Protagonists Don’t Protag

Dear Story Nurse,

My problem in a nutshell: I don’t know what kind of climax my story needs!

Details: I’m working on a fantasy novel, mostly secondary world with a little magic thrown in. It’s between 80k and 90k long. This is the first novel I’ve really plotted out seriously, and I can tell that it helped a lot in keeping track of the threads and in keeping the story moving when my tendency is to stop and gaze for way too long at the scenery.

A little bit about the story: There are four (thinking of cutting it down to three) POV characters whose plots intersect and come together toward the end of the story. There’s one character in particular who is sort of central to everything, and everybody else’s arc in the story is directly or indirectly pulled by her—some to help her and others to potentially harm her. Of all the characters, she probably has the most growth as a character.

(This letter is on the longer side, so it’s continued after the cut tag.)

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