IF HBO'S WESTWORLD WAS A REAL PLACE, WRITING THE HOST BACKSTORIES WOULD BE MY DREAM JOB.
My first step to writing a fictional story always starts with a character. I create a character, which can be fragments of people I’ve interacted with or observed put together into one fictional being or traits I've made up entirely, and I ask myself “What’s that character doing?” The first-step process is different for every writer. You may be inspired by a character, or you may be inspired by a setting, a time-period, or a general theme. I’m just saying that for me, it’s all about character.
When I’ve got a rough outline of a character in my head, I go through exercises to piece the character together. The incredible part about the imagination is that you can create a well-rounded character with a backstory, a voice, a motive, feelings, and thoughts and almost forget that they don’t actually exist. …Or do they?
I’m huge on visuals for my projects. Start flipping through magazines and cut out anything that inspires you in relation to your story and your character and paste it on a poster board. I’ve been keeping things electronic lately because it’s helpful to have easy access of my planning, so I use Pinterest. I keep my boards secret so only I can see them and then I type keywords into the search. This is a forewarning—Pinterest is addictive and you are liable to fall into a Pinterest black hole for hours on end! But it’s worth it. I feel a bit strange sometimes to pin a human’s face as inspiration for what my character would look like, so I normally scavenge through fantasy-art boards. I’ll pin outfits, settings, places, zodiac signs, what shoes they wear, what car they drive, and the list goes on and on.
I’ve tried answering questions in online personality tests as my character, but I find that once you have a rough idea of who your character is, you can scan through the answers and pick out which seems best. I’m talking Myers-Briggs. There are a ton of sites that provide commonly known fictional characters under each personality. You aren’t your character, so you can’t expect to be in their head 24/7. Having a personality test resource at hand gives you a quick run-through of traits to refresh your mind.
During my masters program, our tutors would recommend journaling if we were stuck with our character. “But my character wouldn’t journal,” was a frequent response in which the tutor would say, “Just do it anyway.” (Okay, I doubt those were their exact words but something along those lines.) Basically—get out a diary and start writing entries as if you are your character. These diaries don’t have to be used in your story. In fact, they shouldn’t be. They should be open, honest, and truthful. Your character is opening up about himself because no one is judging him. It’s important to remember how much writing you should do before you begin your story. If you are ever stuck, don’t close the laptop. Don’t walk away and say you’ll come back to it later. That question mark on your page will be in the back of your mind like a fly hovering by your ear until you get back to typing. Write run-on sentences, write gibberish, write anything! You can scrap it during editing.
THE DREADED 10+ PAGED CHARACTER SHEET
Okay, maybe people like filling out character sheets... I’ll admit they can be very helpful and fun to do, but some of the questions are hard. They will make you think about things you’ve never even answered about yourself. “What do they want?” might be easy to answer but the next question is almost always, “What do they really want?” I get stumped there. These sheets really make you think. If you can’t answer everything in one sitting, take a break and come back to it later. Keep it in the back of your head and think about it as you go on with the rest of your day. My breakthroughs happen whenever I’m traveling. I’ve stopped on the side of the road on my bike a few times to write down an idea. Here are some to get started with through Gotham Writers Workshop.
Please feel free to comment and let me know what tactic works best for you or suggest some of your own ways to build a character. I'm always looking for new ideas!