A Little Goes a Long Way

As readers of this blog know, J and I plan. Our passion for knowing what we are going to do before we ever write the opening sentence borders on the religious. But if someone put a gun (hopefully metaphorical) to my head and said, “Start writing,” what are the handful of things I would absolutely have to know before beginning? Looked at in a less dramatic light, what are some of the first things I decide when I’m about to start a novel, sans death threat? At a basic level, stories consist of three aspects: character, setting, and plot. So the first decisions I make in regards to each of these are a sort of profession of faith, you might say—the tenets that underlie all of my writing.

Character: What and Why
We both like doing character studies before we start a novel, J especially, but the first questions I ask myself about a character are: What does he want and why does he want it? Everything else about a character springs from this beginning. For instance, last NaNoWriMo I decided to set aside the novel I had completely outlined eight days before November 1, so I didn’t have time for the prep work I would normally do. But I did make time for short character profiles for all of the named cast. (Luckily, The Queen’s Tower focuses on a small group of people.) Each character received a page or two in my Moleskin, and for all of them I jotted down what the character wants and why. For instance, the titular queen wants her son to succeed. Nothing earthshattering there; in fact, who needs to write notes about a mother hoping for the best for her son? Terribly pedestrian. But when I thought about why, Queen Merewyn became a) more interesting, and b) a character I knew so much more about. You see, the answer isn’t so much maternal instinct as the opportunity to stick it to her husband and all of the other people who doubted whether or not her son could be a good leader. Always keeping this motive and its motivation in mind made it possible for me to write a novel with a consistent and interesting protagonist (even if the novel requires a bit more revision than ones I’ve written with more thorough preparation), even though I didn’t know as much about her as other protagonists I’ve written.

Setting: Fists, Swords, or Guns
Physical settings are driven by what is available to the people living there. Now, as fantasy novelists, we have a certain latitude on what we can include, but as J pointed out, a setting must still function within its own rules. Another way to think about it is what’s the tech level? Has the society figured out how to make steel? Do these people know what happens when you combine sulfur and saltpeter? And then there are less martial questions to ask, like what is the banking system? If you have a society with a well-developed banking system, chances are people are not living in yurts, but instead have an economy advanced enough to import building materials. And if this society can afford to import, let’s say marble, do they have the technology to stack that marble two, three, ten, hundred stories high? If a character lives in a cold climate before the dawn of electricity with no contact with the outside world, said character will probably be dressed in wool, because cotton needs a warm climate and merchants to take it somewhere cold. One decision about the tech level determines every other aspect of the setting.

Plot: Which way did he go?
How does the story end? Seriously, I have no idea how I would begin if I didn’t know where I was going.

So that’s the bare minimum of what I need to know before I can set pen to paper. (And I mean that literally—remember, I’m a handwriter.)  Although, I find it interesting that some of this I’ve always simply intuited. If I’m being completely honest, I’d never put into words the Setting/Tech Level issue until I sat down to write this blog, but as a secondary world fantasy author, tech level is such a prominent concern it’s seeped into my process all on its own. But now that I have organized these ideas, I’ve noticed something about my process I hadn’t before. I’m not terribly reliant on the specifics of setting before I begin, and while I like to have a plan, I can start writing as long as I know where I’m going even if I haven’t plotted out how I’m going to get there. My process is primarily character driven. I need to know what makes my characters tick, as it were, although not necessarily their complete backstories. Backstory often evolves on an as-needed basis, as does the setting and plot for that matter. Knowing Queen Merewyn wants to further her son’s future is the only reason I care that her room is round, because she needs to pace around it while she’s plotting how to manipulate specific people. The setting and the plot only matter because of what she wants and why she wants it.

Now, I’m sure other authors have their own list of necessities, but this is what I need if I have any hope of managing so much as a coherent first page.

~S

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