That First Blush

The genesis of a new story is one of the most refreshing interludes in a career of writing. A new idea comes to you. It concerns a topic that stirs your fancy. You know you could write about it with passion, because certain elements—on the broadest of thematic levels—speak to you. You start writing notes, and the idea seems even stronger once you’ve laid down a few basic parameters. At the end of a writing session, or several, you are beaming inside with happiness. This one, you know, is going to be great. 

Before you go too far, however, let’s consider a practical point. A great idea without a great central character isn’t going to take you too far toward the goal of being published. That’s because a publisher wants a unique product above all. If that sounds crass, welcome to the way trade publishing really works. A publisher is thinking in terms of the copy that fills the back cover. Inside a publishing house, the marketing department plays an important role in whether a book is accepted for publication.

Let’s return to the glorious freshness of the new idea. Ask yourself at a very early stage: what characteristics does my main character possess that are unique? That requires you think through their situation in life. Single? Married? With children and how many? What about the parents, perhaps with problems that still plague the main character during the course of the novel? Do you have any back stories about their upbringing that has an impact on how they act during the course of the novel? Try to see if you can write 10 pages on what this person is doing before the novel starts. Above all, what is distinctive about all this stuff? What sets your character apart from all of the hundreds of other main characters that you’ve loved reading about?

The reason to start thinking this way from the beginning is that the peculiarities of the protagonist can have a strong influence on how you shape the novel. For instance, I can’t imagine Into the Woods by Tana French without the haunting back story about the protagonist losing his two best friends as a child. You too can use the three or four prime ingredients that make your character special as a way to give your novel a flavor that no other novel has. 

Exercise: From form comes action. Once you have decided on several defining characteristics, think about the possible outcomes of such a trait. Then exaggerate those outcomes to the very outer edge of believability. If the character likes to  appease others, because her parents fought constantly when she was a child, think of the absolute worst situation in which his appeasement could place her. See if you can design that sequence so that she has to wallow in that position for as long as possible. 

“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.”  —Ray Bradbury


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