I never really know my characters before I begin writing them. It must seem like a strange way of going about it. I know some writers like to spend a lot of time building a character beforehand, but I’ll often begin writing a character and not know anything about them. I’m not simply talking about a character’s physical characteristics, but rather who they are as a person.
It’s only as I write them, that they slowly begin to reveal who are they and come to life. And it’s always a great moment, when that character begins to take control of the narrative, shaping and taking it to places even I don’t expect.
This does make writing outlines rather tricky, as my characters sometimes decide they’re going to take the plot in an entirely different direction. That’s why I’ve never really liked writing outlines that are too in-depth. I try to keep my outlines flexible and loose. I need to know where my characters start, and roughly where they’re going to end up, but the stuff in the middle is all rather vague.
It’s a tricky balance to get right. I like to keep a story structured and tight so it doesn’t meander about without a lot happening. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing a game, watching a film or reading a book – there’s nothing worse than the feeling that your time is being wasted on meaningless tosh.
So where do we start with DOTJ? We begin with a rough notion of the type of setting I want. We then put together a list of names that feel appropriate for the setting. These are my characters, although I don’t yet know who they are. From here, I picture an opening scene, the moment everything kicks off. I’ll then write this scene, trying to establish the tone and style of the story.
Once I feel I have a grasp on those, I’ll begin to work on a rough outline and structure. I’ll focus primarily on the early stages of the story and leave the rest fairly open. I’ll then write the first few chapters. This is when you realise if the story/character is going to work or not.
I’m now at this point with DOTJ. I’ve written a few chapters to get a sense of my characters, tone and style. I’m pretty happy with it, but it still needs a lot of work. Now that I have these somewhat established, I can go back to my outline and begin to properly flesh it out.
I still don’t quite feel that I know my main character yet. It will likely take some time, but that moment will come. The moment they stop doing what I’m telling them and start acting independently. That’s when it really becomes their story and I’m just along for the ride.