#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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#13: “Should I Just Give Up on Writing?”

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m not sure if it’s beyond your remit but I long for help on the subject of fear of writing. You see, I’d love to write again. I’ve written a couple of books and had them published within the lesfic genre but then I lost confidence. There was a mixture of external feedback, mainly positive, some less so, but nothing as damning as my own machinations.

I think about how much I want to write and try to progress a career in this area but my inner voice shouts me down. The arguments involve how many other people want the same thing, how I lack the talent and how even my best efforts so far have disappointed me. In the face of massive competition, I feel like I would always be a poor wannabe.

I’ve stopped writing because I can’t bear to have something that means so much to me thrown under the train of self-criticism traveling with this much momentum. Now I find myself unsure of my path. Part of me is tempted to stop now while there is still the hope that I could be good enough rather than persist and prove beyond all doubt that I am not. Still, to give up on a dream I have nurtured since childhood feels wrong at the most fundamental level.

Am I alone in feeling this way? Should I just take the hint and retire quietly into obscurity? Is there any way I can reclaim the pleasure of writing for myself without this contamination of self-recrimination?

Whether you answer or not, thank you for reading and for your website.

—Self-Critically Stumped (she/her)

Dear Self-Critically Stumped,

That crash-and-tinkle sound just now was my heart breaking. I’m so sorry you’re having such a hard time. Self-criticism is incredibly painful, because we know where all our own weak spots are. But by that same logic, we can also be our own best allies, cheerleaders, and friends.

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#12: Rediscovering Your Story’s Heart

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently working on the third draft of the first novel I’m seriously thinking of seeking publication for, and it’s giving me no end of trouble. The characters have been in my head a lot lately, bugging me to finally get their story out the door, so I was wondering if you could help me out with at least one particular issue I keep running into again and again.

There are several scenes in the novel that I felt (and others agreed) didn’t quite work in previous drafts because of wonky character motivations, general lack of momentum, etc., and I’ve been finding that I’ll rewrite one of those scenes, feel much better about it, but then realize that I’ve messed with the continuity of the story (for example, by screwing up the timeline or eliminating a problematic/semi-useless character). Then when I’m patching up the continuity in another place something ELSE will change, and I end up caught in a seemingly endless cycle of narrative whack-a-mole. Do you have any suggestions for taming these pesky contradictory story elements?

—Revision Wrangler (he/him)

Dear Revision Wrangler,

This is a very common problem around draft three or four. You’re having a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” moment, where the forest is an actual ecosystem; cutting down one tree turns out to disturb a vole habitat and fewer voles mean the owls go hungry and so on. But don’t panic! Just take a deep breath and step back. No, further back. Zoom all the way out. You want to see that forest as a forest, or maybe even as an irregular green shape on a map with lots of other shapes around it.

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#9: You Are Your Own Muse

Dear Story Nurse,

So, I have no problem writing anything that can be done in one sitting (once I’ve chased the brain weasels off and started typing, that is). I can do some good work in micro and flash fiction and I’m trying to stretch things out. You said some really good things earlier about tying pieces together with plot threads and those were really helpful, but I have a somewhat different problem: If I have to stop, I find it really hard to pick the thing back up again. (My writing time is necessarily fragmented, with job/commute/parenting. I write when I can.)

It seems that I don’t know how to pick up the mood/action of the story and carry those words further out. Note that this only seems to happen with fiction writing: class assignments were easy to pick back up, and most essays are easy to pick the thread back up and carry on with my work.

I have a good idea for a story, I can make decent headway, but once I stop, I’m doomed. How do I restart the engine?

Please Story Nurse, you’re my only hope!

—talkendo (they/them)

Dear talkendo,

Thanks for bringing up this problem, which I think is a pretty common one. It can have a few different causes, but the one I see most often is a sort of writerly centipede’s dilemma. Something about the process of sitting down to add more words to a half-written work makes you very aware that you are writing, and then you get self-conscious and either feel blocked from writing at all or dislike everything you try to write.

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#8: You Are Not Your Work

Hey Story Nurse,

I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was 14, and now that I graduated university I decided that it was Time To Get Down To Business. The problem is, whenever I sit down to write anything, I always feel terrible about it once it hits 10k. It’s not that I lack confidence in my writing skills (I studied English lit), but it’s more that I worry that no one in the world would ever want to read my story. Who cares about a novella with two girls trapped on a lonely planet?! How can I get rid of that self doubt? Because I know I want to read that story, and I know that there is such a big market for stories casually featuring queer girls, but I just can’t seem to make the cognitive leap from “people like stories about queer girls in space” to “people will like MY story about queer girls in space”.

I’m going to a retreat for 5 days next week, and I really want to work on this story, but I just feel like I need to find some CONFIDENCE!

Thank you so much for your time,
Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to respond in time for your retreat, and I hope it was very helpful to you one way or another. Sometimes sitting alone in a room with your work and no other distractions is the best way to figure out what’s really keeping you from writing.

In this letter, you talk about yourself and your work as though they’re one and the same. One moment you say you don’t think anyone will want to read your work, and the next you say you doubt yourself. Your identification with your work is something I see a lot of in students and recent graduates, because school is a place where you as a person are judged by the quality of your work in a way that’s pretty psychologically terrible. We say that a person is a “straight-A student” when what we mean is that that person’s work is consistently evaluated very highly by their teachers. The person, as a person, does not directly get graded. But that’s how it feels—that the grade for your work is the grade for you.

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#6: Returning to Writing After a Long Hiatus

Dear Story Nurse,

I wrote a lot growing up and in my early 20s—some poetry and also some short stories and novels (most of the latter never finished). In my mid-20s, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for several years and stopped writing, and I think part of the reason was because I wasn’t ready to face up to what was happening so I didn’t really want to explore my inner world through writing. There was also an element of feeling like I ‘ought’ to grow up, either commit to writing as a career or find something else to do, etc. Still, during this time I worked as a translator, transcriber, summary-writer, editor, proof-reader, etc—all of which involved writing or working with text in some capacity.

I left that relationship and quit my job to do a master’s and a PhD, pursuing a passion for food and environmental activism. I had a few, short periods where I tried to get back into creative writing, but in general I was so busy studying and freelancing to support myself that I didn’t have much time or energy. In particular, I found that after a day of sitting at my laptop, reading and writing, I wanted to do other things with my downtime that were more physically active or used other parts of my brain. Towards the end of my PhD, a toxic combination of stress, lack of money, and physical and mental health issues meant I basically stopped doing anything outside of essential academic or paid work except crashing into bed and watching Netflix.

I finished my PhD earlier this year and am at something of a crossroads, career-wise. I found a job as an academic editor in my field, which is part-time and was supposed to be short-term, but I am slowly realizing that I am finding this fulfilling and satisfying in a way that I wasn’t feeling about my PhD towards the end. The translator/editor/person-who-does-things-with-text identity is one that feels a bit more comfortable to wear than my researcher identity. I’m also enjoying having a flexible work schedule so I can do more of the self-care and hobbies that I was seriously neglecting while studying. With this time, I have started writing fiction again for the first time in years, and am increasingly feeling like this is important to my well-being and sense of self.

My project is a novel, set in the future, in the area where I grew up, and exploring some of the themes I studied during my PhD. Perhaps “climate fiction” is the closest genre description I can think of. Kind of post-apocalyptic but where the apocalypse is less zombies and more, “How do I care for my aging mother/disabled child in a country where the social safety net is being destroyed? What happens to working-class people in rural areas when floods and storms and heatwaves make farming even harder than it is now, and all the land is owned by the super-wealthy?” I have only written a few thousand words so far. I have some ideas for the main characters and plot, but nothing really developed yet.

I guess I have two questions.

1) Where do I even start with this new project? So far, I have been focusing on just allowing myself to write and trying to turn off my inner editor/self-critic. My editing/analytic brain has been massively validated by doing a PhD and now working as an editor, and I feel that right now, the best thing I can do for myself as a writer is encourage myself to have ideas and explore them a bit, and just write some words even if they’re terrible, and be okay with the fact that they’re raw and unpolished. Still, if I ever want to get better as a writer, I can’t keep doing this forever. I have taken out a subscription to a magazine for women who write and will try some of their writing prompts and exercises. Apart from this, what are some ways I can start working on making this an actual novel and not a stream of words? How do I turn interesting ideas about climate change and politics into a plot? How do I write compelling characters who aren’t just versions of me trying to work out some of my issues/thoughts?

2) More generally, my two most likely career options—continuing in academia as a researcher or pursuing work as an academic editor and translator—involve a lot of writing, editing and critical analysis. In the past, when I have done these things full-time, I have found it difficult to do creative writing as well. Is this just a problem of available time? Of having the wrong mindset/priorities? How can I make time for my own creative writing alongside jobs that involve a lot of sitting at my computer and working with words and ideas? Or should I get a completely different job that uses other skills, to leave my writing brain free for creative projects?

—Victoria (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#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.

So here’s a longer version of the nutshell:

I’ve reached the point just before the climax, which has all of the POV characters converging together, along with a detachment of soldiers who are in league with the antagonists. The characters who are not bad guys don’t have any such armed support on their side, although one of the POV characters has some experience in a fight.

I even have an ending in mind, which is mostly a happy one: the antagonists are defeated or at least prevented from maximum antagonizing. I just can’t figure out how the characters get from the climax set-up to the denouement! For some reason, the only options that come to mind are (1) a battle—which is not really in keeping with the rest of the novel, which is mostly women of various ages moving through the setting, doing what they do—or (2) an involved conversation, which seems a bit underwhelming.

One thing I’ve thought about is that, throughout the story, the central-most MC has been yanked this way and that by good guys and bad alike. I feel like the climax is her opportunity to assert herself somehow. All the other MCs have had to make choices throughout the story, but she’s been pretty passive.

So if you have any thoughts as to how I can think through this, what some options outside battle/conversation are, and what you’d want to see in this kind of scene, they would be most appreciated!

—chocolatetort (she/her)

Dear chocolatetort,

Thanks for writing in with such a classic concern! A lot of authors face similar problems. You are definitely not alone. And I’ve got a few different sets of suggestions for you to try on for size. Continue reading

#3: Filling the Plot Gap

Dear Story Nurse,

All my writer friends talk about plotters vs. pantsers. I seem to combine the worst of both worlds. Whenever I go to outline a large project (anything longer than a short story, even if it’s just a mid-length novelette—but most notably novels), there’s always a hole in the middle. It usually says something like “more plot here” or “book goes here.” I know what comes before it. I know what goes after it. But not only is there this hole, I almost always find that I have to write a bunch of prose and then put the file away for months before I find what goes in it.

How do I fill in the map sooner? What is my brain even doing here? This has been okay, if frustrating, when I was just writing for myself, but now that I’m facing actual deadlines it is terrifying. I can always finish things eventually, but eventually is not always soon enough! Do I just have to build “2–3 months fallow period” into every contract? If so, can I ever make anybody else understand that?

—Here There Be Dragons (they/them)

Dear Dragons,

I’m going to get a little Freudian on your choice of pseudonym. When cartographers of yore wrote “Here There Be Dragons” on a map, what they meant was “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Whatever was in that place was so terrifying and fearsome that it couldn’t even be named. That region of the map was not for exploring; it was, to quote a very obscure Monty Python sketch, for lying down and avoiding.

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#2: Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself

Hi Story Nurse,

So, I’ve been “working” on a novel for a couple years now. Which is to say, I’ve written around ten pages and haven’t been able to force myself to do any more, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success writing short stories, but this novel just intimidates me. I’m not sure why, but it does—plotting and keeping track of all the details and characters at such length is kind of intimidating.

I think that part of the reason is that this novel is set during and around the Holocaust, and I’m terrified of the research I’ll have to do. I have plenty of books, I know where to find more, but the prospect of reading about all that suffering and horror… well, I haven’t been able to sit down and make myself do it. But nor do I want to start writing when I am ill-informed, because it’s important to me to get this right and not mess it up.

Do you have any tips on how to get myself to work on this novel, write and do the research? I can go into more detail about the plot if that would help. And I’ve researched terrible things before, I’m not sure why I have a block on doing this.

—EG (she/her)

Dear EG,

This sounds really hard. Really, really hard. I think just about any novelist would find it intimidating and difficult to embark on a book-length project and have to do a ton of research and spend both the research and the writing immersed in a time of horrors and feel tremendous moral responsibility for conveying history accurately in a work of fiction. All the more so if you have a personal connection to the Holocaust or reason for writing about it. You don’t say whether this is your first novel, but if it is, that’s going to add to the feeling of intimidation; just about every debut novelist feels that way when starting out.

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#1: Reviser’s Block

Welcome to Story Hospital! I’m so excited to be getting this project underway.

Dear Story Nurse,

I have written myself under an avalanche. I did NaNoWriMo, and I really liked that, so I did another one. I’m pretty good at finding a way to write at least a few words every day no matter what else is going on in my life (job, family, world politics, etc.). But then stories keep piling up. (I mostly write horror shorts, in case that matters.) I have a critique group, I get revision suggestions, but when it comes time to sit down and write, it’s almost impossible to get myself to do revisions—even if I think they’re good ideas that will make the story better. Maybe some writers write perfect first drafts, but not me—these stories canNOT go out to editors as they are. So here they sit.

It’s not that I sit around doing nothing! I write the drafts of new stories, which I know is productive. But then there are *more* stories that need revisions. That I am not doing. Help!

Snowed Under (she/her)

Dear Snowed Under,

Thank you for writing in with this problem. First, I want to affirm that it’s a real problem. I suspect that when you talk with other writers about it, they roll their eyes and declare loudly that they wish they had too many great ideas for stories and just couldn’t stop writing. But the real issue here isn’t too much writing. It’s not enough revising. Specifically, it’s this:

when it comes time to sit down and write, it’s almost impossible to get myself to do revisions

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