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Monday, January 21, 2013

What Comes First - the Story or the Characters?

Muse Monday

It's a question all authors get asked at some time or another. My answer is quick - the characters. My imagination is so character driven that there are times I've really had to search out their story. I might have only a vague idea. For instance, Sleeping with the Lights On started with a fifty year old woman who hadn't found the right man or the right career. I knew Sandra Holiday was upbeat and funny, but why hadn't she found what she needed in life? I gave her a past, and voila! The story began. I started her on her path of discovery but she led the way and got into all kinds of trouble.

1945 friends
Honey On White Bread also started with a character, Claire Flanagan. This young woman was inspired by my mom, so when I created her past, I plucked a few events from my mom's childhood. I wanted to write a story set in the 1940's. Although still character driven, this time I allowed the era to determine my direction. But Claire's sass jumped right off of page one and gave me the reason for the book.

For my novella, The Morning After, I answered a submission request from my publisher. They set the scene (at least one pivotal moment in Amarillo, Texas at the Lonesome Steer Honky Tonk) but the story was the writer's choosing. So...Texas, dancing, drinking and romance. A thirty-something lady came to mind. Abigail Martin woke up with a hangover in Amarillo after a wedding at the Lonesome Steer. And since she needed a sexy cowboy to spice up her dull life - redheaded Bobby Stockwood swept her off her feet. And he gives the meaning to the word character.

The hotel Lacy stays at in Flagstaff
I'm currently writing a series, my Love and Murder series. I tried to start a bit differently this time. My intent was to write three murder mysteries and begin with the storyline. I came up blank. And then Lacy Dahl popped into my head - a woman looking for her past and a new future because her present had been yanked away. Why wouldn't she know her past? Why was it dangerous for her to make that discovery? So, as I did for Sandra Holiday, I created Lacy's past. Only this time, it was my secret. Or I thought it was. Once the story began, it got way more involved than I first thought. 

Because I write romance, there are of course heroes in all of my books. And where they come from is about as mysterious to me as where my heroines come from. All I know is, they're born before the story. I know most of their pasts, how they look, how they dress, how they smell and how they sound long before they divulge their stories. I share that with my characters - discovering the story.


  1. Brenda, interesting topic! I do a little of both, usually starting with characters. I give them a full blown history, writing their background, ancestry and hangups. Then I start figuring out what conflicts to put in front of them. I think it helps me to get that on paper. keeps me from trying to sneak in too much backstory in the beginning!

    1. Sounds like we have a similar process, Jerrie. And I think you're right about it helping to keep the backstory out of the first chapter!

  2. I'm your complete opposite. I start with the story. I love music and many of my story ideas come from songs. Then, the first character to come is my hero. I do build a full bio for each character before I start writing though.

    1. Sandra, I love to hear about doing it a different way. I wonder if you play music while you write. I know some authors do. I tried, thinking it would set my mood, but it's distracting for me. I can't help singing along.

  3. I'm an odd one. For novella length, I come up with the characters and give them a story. For novel length, I have a plot in mind, usually fairly complex, and drop in characters who fit. Great post, Brenda,

  4. So that's how you come up with amazing characters and stories. I can hardly wait to read your mystery series.