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Sunday, January 30, 2011

What comes first - characters or story?

The January issue of RWA's publication, RWR, Romance Writer's Report had some great articles brimming with insights. Something Maria Connor wrote in her article, New Year, Renewed Focus, really tapped my writing brain, more like banged on it with a ball-peen hammer. " to your strengths; the aspects of writing that you do well and love to do." And a quote from former Silhouette Senior Editor Valerie Hayward echoes her advice: "Commit to being really, really good at what you do best instead of focusing on what needs to be fixed. It's way more fun and affirming."

So simple, right?

I know my strengths as a writer are well-defined characters and comfortable, realistic dialogue. That part of writing comes easy for me. I know my people, hear them, see them, know their body language, how they respond to anything said to them. From the first day of my journey to taking writing seriously and not add it to my list of hobbies, I haven't struggled with those two aspects of writing. It's the storyline that is the weak brick in my writing wall. Characters, professions, language, settings, how the characters meet and interact I can do. Taking those images and ideas and turning them into a really good story is my biggest challenge. I do manage to get there, with more ease than I used to, and tell the story as best I can.

I can thank my characters for that. They write their own stories. I'm simply their conduit and fingerpower. Veering away from common occupations and the people working them is one of my favorite aspects of character development. Like in 'Renovation Road', a story of mine in the 2010 holiday anthology, Comfort and Joy, the lead female character is an 18-wheel truck driver. Darby hauls cars for a living, a Florida to Wyoming route this time around. She's got a stowaway in one of her cars, an adult male running from his life. Now, when I started working the story I wasn't exactly sure what Jamison was running from but eventually his story played out. Darby decides to invite him to ride with her in the truck cab, praying that she doesn't regret the decision.

Here's Darby's side of things:

She'd never been good at hiding her feelings and had a couple that had snuck up on her. Apprehension for one. Not a lot but enough to get her attention. She'd taken on a large, unknown male passenger, so a little apprehension was valid. And invited said passenger to strip and cozy up in some of her towels. Then there was that supid promise not to peek. She'd sounded like a sleazy dressing room attendant.

But excitement topped everything. The potential danger of the situation and the risk she'd taken was kind of exciting.

Not bad for only five AM.

I wanted to put a little twist on the White Knight scenario, make it the lady doing the saving rather than the man. Not an easy thing for a forty something man to admit he's comfortable with, or wants. Here's a little insight into Jamison's thinking while he's sitting in a jail cell:

I'm sorry I led you to think I needed a ride because my car had broken down. But you coming to that truck stop was the best thing that had happened to me in a long time. I couldn't risk..."

Darby squinted into the gloom of the cell. "You couldn't risk what?"

"Losing a way to get away from there. I couldn't risk" A long breath escaped him. "I thought you were a man. If I'd known you were a woman, I probably wouldn't have done what I did."

She smirked. "Really. Have a problem with female truck drivers, do you?"


A question to you: what comes first, your characters or your stories? Does a character guide your way to and through your story, or does your story shape who will tell it?

As always, happy writing!



Katalina Leon said...

Hi Polly! This was a great questions and It's so hard to answer.I think my initial inspiration comes from my characters, but the story shapes the character's reactions and growth. It all has to work together.

jean hart stewart said...

good blog. Love questions that make me think. I have to agree with Kat. I know my characters before I start, and I know the beginning and the ending. But how to get there kinda has to work itself out. Jean

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