Someone asks in a recent blog post:
If you write, where do your ideas come from? Do you start with a scene? A character? A premise? Or do you have some ridiculous trigger that demands you spin a story out of it?
That is a good question. A novel thrusts itself into my poor overloaded mind based on two things: a character, and a theme.
This is the heart of my creative process. I need both a main character with a distinctive voice, and I need a unifying idea. When the two meet, it’s magic. My brain will refuse to let go of the two, and, at some point, they merge and I will have the resulting plot and setting. I am now compelled to write the story.
But where do these characters and themes come from?
Mainly, I observe. I am not a shy man, but I am a quiet fixture. Why does that smartly dressed woman at the airport waiting for the same flight as me have a perpetual frown? Why are the neighbors across the street so reclusive? Is the wife sick? If so, will she ever get better? The Sheriff Deputy in the coffee shop–if she were in trouble, big trouble, would she have the will and fortitude, beyond her training, to survive? If she did have this internal strength, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time, would anybody come to help?
Observation can give me characters, and it can give me themes.
For example, why does our society have a culture of blame-the-victim, bordering on the tolerance for the criminal? Where did this corruption come from, and where will it lead? Why do some cultures today feed off each other, becoming stronger, while others clash, causing conflict? Is a society that devalues the lives of children for the sake of control and equality doomed to failure? If so, how will it fail?
Sometimes, I will be thinking these questions and suddenly they will merge into a story. Like this proto-outline:
The Sheriff Deputy in the coffee shop is in trouble. She is a strong person but in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is a righteous woman, but righteousness is not going to save her now (this is the character, maybe the main character, or an important minor one).
Career criminals, released by our society to prey upon the weak once more without mercy, decided they were going to kill a copy one day. Our society tolerates evil men such as this. It has happened before (in the real world), and it will happen again (sadly, this is also a reality). Where did this corruption come from, and where will it lead? (this is a theme).
The righteous and the evil go at it in the coffee shop parking lot. Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the death of the female deputy is a forgone conclusion. How would she get out of this?
She gets help. A woman caught in the crossfire draws her sidearm and joins the gun battle (this is the glimmering of a plot and also a very strong character).
Why did this woman have gun? Well, she has the typical ex-husband who has threatened to kill her. She decided she wasn’t going to use a paper shield and actually defend herself (this is related to the theme, but also further characterization).
Only, she isn’t defending herself. She is defending someone sworn to defend her! She is shot. Several times. Nevertheless, everyone lives, except the evil men.
And this heroic action caused the next American Civil War (this is now the plot).
That’s my writing process. For me, only when I have a firm character, or characters, and a unified idea to generate conflict as a theme, can I get a plot that works for me. At this point, I have a novel. All that is left is my outlining process (which I do in my head) and typing.
You may think a gun battle in a coffee shop parking lot and the next American Civil War is a gigantic, random leap–but it’s not. The theme, as you recall, is “Where did this corruption (tolerance for evil) come from, and where will it lead?” With these characters and this theme, the plot burst out of me like the alien from the chest of poor Kane on the Nostromo.
This is my creative process, how I obtain ideas and turn them into novels. And it works very well for me.