Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about new ideas, and how to tell whether a given idea is “ripe” and ready to be written. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to play with something completely new–I spent this year working on The Way We Fall‘s sequel and drafts of books I’d started earlier–so it’s exciting to have some room on my plate again.
I get a lot of ideas. As I mentioned not long ago, I have notebooks and an index card box full of them. Some are tidbits that will intrigue me in the moment enough to write them down, but will never end up in a story. Some I keep coming back to. On average I’d say it takes me a year or so before an idea will come together enough that I’m ready to outline and write the actual book.
The reason it take so long is that there are certain elements I need to have for the idea before I understand it well enough to write it properly. If I try to write a story without those elements (which I do sometimes, because I get impatient), the story inevitably dies before it’s finished. I don’t know how similar my needed elements are to other writers’ (I am always impressed by those authors who seem to be able to dive right into an idea and figure it out while they’re writing!), but I thought it’d be interesting to share them.
The element I’m going to talk about today is fairly basic: A main character with an arc.
Just about every story needs a main character, right? That much is obvious. The coolest plot idea in the world doesn’t do me any good if I don’t know who’s going to be making their way through that plot.
But it’s not enough for me to just come up with a character who might be in that situation. (“That would be too easy,” says the muse.) I need a character who’s going to go through an emotional arc during the course of the story. That is, he or she is going to be changed by the events of the story, so that at the end s/he is different than s/he was at the beginning. I’ve heard it said that when a character arc is done right, the character at the beginning of the story could not have accomplished what needs to be done to solve the problem at the end of the story. It is the way s/he changes along the way that prepares them for that final “battle” (literal or otherwise).
There are stories in which the main character isn’t noticeably changed by what they’ve been through, and I’ve read and enjoyed stories like that, but I don’t find writing a story where the character doesn’t grow very interesting. So before I can start writing a book, I need to know that main character and his or her arc. More importantly, I need to find that arc compelling, so it can’t be something trite or overly familiar. And, as suggested above, preferably I need that emotional arc to echo the arc of the external conflict in the story… which is something I’m going to talk about more in the next post.