My stories almost always start with character creation. When I create an avatar as I start a game, a persona for that character comes to mind. Sometimes that character is cheeky, sometimes quiet, always interesting—to me at least.
When I first started writing my DDO fan fiction story a handful of years ago, I envisioned a young half-elf who had been kidnapped from her family and sold into slavery. She is purchased by a cult that wants to groom her to become a spy and assassin because she is wiry and quick. At first, she is grateful to her new masters—they are immeasurably less cruel than the slavers, so she does her best to learn. When she discovers what her masters have in mind for her, she escapes and tries to return to her homeland. She does not know that a few months before her escape, a magical event destroyed her home and there is nothing left to return to. Her next step is to run half a world away to escape the clutches of the cult. But, as usual, the gods have their own plans.
I wrote the rest of her story with a little help from my friends. As her story progressed, she became the center ancestor of the Alterian family dilemma. I am still working on polishing her tale.
So, how did her story blossom from a name and an avatar to a character with a history? Every writer uses their own process, but for me, it usually begins with a game.
As I create my game persona, a scenario forms in my mind. How did this character arrive at this point in the story? I begin to write the events that steer my new “person” to the point the game commences. I’ve created characters just to write their backstories. In fact, I started writing a character who realized she had been sucked into her latest video game before I knew that the LitRPG genre existed. I called it “experimental writing,” and it was a fun exercise. I posted some of it on the game’s Fan Fiction forum.
Sometimes, my character comes first, as in the instance of Meegan, and I build a world around that first story. Such is the case with the Adaran continent. I first wrote the story of Meegan after I returned from deployment and found myself single. Some of the characters in the story were based on the other players in our little ship-board geek group. As for the origin of the story plot, that is lost to the years. I now have backstories for most of the main characters, I know who the antagonist and the villain are, and I have the framework of a story arc. Now I just need to finish the various viewpoints and put the narrative together.
Other times, the story arc builds itself in my head first, like in my contemporary tale with the fantasy elements. I know the events, but don’t have a clear sense of precisely Who the characters are. I am still rolling those personas around in my mind, and real-life events are helping me bring some of those personalities and events into sharper focus. I also know that some of the research I need to do will be … interesting to say the least.
I write mostly fantasy, so how much research do I really need to do for a story? Can’t I just make it all up and leave it at that? Well, yes. And no. The world must follow a set of rules, and those rules must be consistent. Most people hate reading a book where something happens a certain way on one page and a hundred pages later, that method changes. A reader only knows what you tell them about your fantasy world, so if a method changes along the course of the tale, make sure to tell your readers that it altered and why, or how.
Some of the fantasy writing forums and blogs I read almost always have questions about magic and how it should work in their creations. The answer to that is: ‘However you want it to, as long as it’s consistent.’ In some worlds, magic is a gift from the gods, in others, it requires a personal sacrifice from the user, sometimes in the form of a portion of the user’s lifeforce. Whatever the rules of your world, make sure to follow them from beginning to end.
Of course, half the problem with writing a story is that, as the author, you know things about your world that your readers don’t. A good example is Mercedes Lackey and her Heralds of Valdemar series. I’m sure Ms. Lackey knows everything about the origin of the Companions, but she’s not telling—at least not that I’ve heard. Speculation has it that the Companions are the reincarnated spirits of former Heralds, but I’ll leave you to read the series and make your own conclusions.
As the creator of the Adaran continent, I know things about the cast of characters and the lands that you as the reader might never see. But it’s the small, sometimes hidden, ofttimes ignored, details of a world that brings it to life. Does the same vendor appear at the same corner every time a scene is set nearby? How about the captain of the guard, or the police chief? Or even the guard or cop on the street?
I am far from a professional novelist. I am a rank beginner with a few years of writing technical content, and a few opinion columns and blog posts under my belt. But I am a lifelong reader of almost anything I could get my hands on (but now that I’m writing fantasy fiction, most of my reading is limited to that genre as I study how others have built their realms).
As I read, I can merely guess what the authors aren’t telling us in their tales. I can only imagine how I would have constructed the world and what things I would keep under the hood to make the world seem more real to the reader. I still try “experimental” writing from time to time. In fact, focusing on Katra’s entrance to the Forgotten Realms is “experimental” for me, even if it isn’t to some readers.
As with some writers, the act of sitting in front of the keyboard and letting my imagination drive my fingers along the keys is an escape. I feel like my journey has evolved throughout my lifetime. As a child, I read to escape the reality that I would be leaving my “bestest” friends and having to make new ones when we reached wherever my father was stationed next. Books and the characters that related those stories became my friends. Oh, I have siblings, so I wasn’t entirely alone, and while growing up, we were close out of necessity.
When I was twelve, my father landed in the place he retired, so I’ve known my “oldest” friends (all two of them) outside my sibs since about then. I grew up in the epitome of the “nuclear family.” It had its pros and cons and probably had a lot to do with my independent spirit, but I missed out on some of the joys and aggravations of growing up in a huge family. I have an insane number of cousins on both sides of my family, most of whom I don’t know. I keep up with a handful of them on Facebook, but it isn’t the same as growing up with them.
Instead, I live that part of life vicariously through First Reader’s family and my own grandchildren. I love watching the cousins play together, get mad at each other, forgive each other, and go back to being family again. Life can be hard when you don’t have family and friends to watch your back when you’re in crisis.
Characters come out of all that. All the messy family drama, all the workplace politics, all the events and people that make up life. Even the strangers who cross our paths contribute to our imaginations. For me, creating characters is a way to imagine other ways of being, of acting, of interacting.