Writing Discussion: Where Do Your Novel Ideas Begin?

Photo credit: Paumadou on Flickr
From the outside, novel-writing appears to be a somewhat nebulous process. Writers wrangle stories from sheer imagination and layer them with complexities and emotions, plot twists and character arcs that leave readers craving more.

The inception of that novel idea is often regarded with some wonder, even to writers. For some, the idea begins as a sentence, or a scene, or a world or situation. For others it begins with a character, or a line of dialogue, or a stray echo after a dream.

I’d like to hear from you: where do your novel ideas begin?

I am absolutely a character-based writer. Every one of my WIP ideas has started with a character, with a world and situation built around them. I find it very difficult to build a character to fit a story—instead, the story evolves from the character.

This is likely a large reason why I tend to neglect setting in my first drafts—I focus instead on learning about my characters, what makes them tick, what makes them them and worry about nailing down a setting in future revisions. Of course not all writers work like that, but character to me is the heart and soul of the novel. I could have a fantastic premise, but if I don’t have equally spectacular character to go with it, the idea fizzles away.

I’m well aware, however, that there are many writers who function quite differently—writers who create an intricate, interesting setting and fantastic premise long before they begin to think about who populates the world. And then there are writers who work somewhere in between—those who develop the two simultaneously and integrate them at the same time.

So now you tell me, writers: where do your novel ideas begin?

18 comments:

Giselle Abreu said...

I love developing characters and trying to find depth to them, but for some reason none of my stories ever spring up from them. It's normally the world around them I create and then I have to figure out how that world's affected them as a character. For me, I stem from setting, though I have had characters I've thought about who have affected the setting in a dramatic way pretty soon after I created the world, if that counts. I also usually begin my novels by having a world and then instead of the moving on to the character, move on to the situation, i.e, boy and girl in certain fantasy story world

Nickie Anderson said...

I'm more of a premise person. I usually start with a nugget of an idea (What if there was a princess who was ugly? What if a spaceship landed on a planet with primitive aliens?), and then I start building characters that fit into this world. I keep a list of my 'What if?' ideas, and when I'm searching for something new to write about I start from there.

Marissa Farrar said...

I tend to start with a situation first. I'll read an article in a newspaper or watch a documentary and the cogs will start working. Often then, several months later, a totally unrelated spark of inspiration will happen and the two ideas slot together. My characters come in pretty soon after that, but, like you, when I'm writing my first draft I tend to leave the setting details until later. Getting the emotions of my characters right is more important. The premise of a novel might be amazing, but if the characters are lifeless or unlikable, no one is going to care.

Grace Robinson said...

I think I sometimes need to work on characters more. I'm definitely a plot-driven or setting-driven writer. I'll think of an awesome plot or even an entire world, and then have to sit down and come up with characters so I can write it down.

AJ Bradley said...

My current WIP was inspired by watching some crows circling over the skylight in my dining room. I wanted so badly to join them, I wondered what it would be like if I could... The sequel to my current WIP was inspired by the protag herself, she appears in the first book as a satellite character and has so much story, she's the star of the next book..!

Ava Jae said...

I wouldn't say you're backwards--you just handle the inception of a novel differently than some. I wouldn't even say most--there are many writers out there who begin with a setting or plot idea, then create the characters afterwards like yourself. Just looking at the comments thus far, 4/5 commenters believe they're plot or setting-driven writers, rather than character-driven. You're certainly not alone! :)

Robin Red said...

I usually start with a concept for a universe. Once I have my universe, I think of conflicting rules for this universe, and I come up with a character who is directly affected by this conflict and enters it. I'll always have "stock characters" in my head, or scenes I daydream about, and if one of them is strong enough, I'll fit it into one of the universe concepts I have jotted down and bend it around the character/scene. From there, it grows.

Alyx Jatho said...

If I wait for ideas, I don't write. I have to just plant my butt in a chair and start writing. Building sentence on sentence, I end up with a couple hundred word intro, mostly setting based, but it's slow and tedious trying to figure it out as i go. I note little things in the file as I think about the intro and they eventually grow themselves into pages full of outlines and dialog bits, character bios; it all gets woven into the first draft.

Joseph Frankmor said...

Characters almost always come first for me, but it's because I'm an artist and spend a lot of time designing characters. So when I get hold of one I'm particularly fond of, the story ideas really start flooding in. I do occasionally break from that mold and have an idea for a world or some other concept first, but it's rare.

Ava Jae said...

Keeping a list of "What if" ideas is fantastic. You never know when one of those ideas that was quickly scribbled down may evolve into an entire story.

Ava Jae said...

I think it's really interesting that you often get two ideas that merge together. I also agree that getting your characters' emotions in place in the first draft is very helpful, and as you said, the characters are essential to a novel. Readers need to be able to connect with them (or at least want to cheer for them) in order to really enjoy the novel.

Ava Jae said...

Interesting! It's nice when our side characters surprise us and make us love them much more than we originally anticipated.

Ava Jae said...

Sounds like you're a pantser, then. :)


Waiting for ideas tends not to work in most situations. As you said, the best you can do is sit down and force yourself to put words on the paper.

Ava Jae said...

I think we all mesh inspiration from various sources (even other stories) to come up with an idea we want to write about. As they say, nothing's new under the sun...

Ava Jae said...

I also have a fascination with character in my art, so I think it's interesting that you mentioned the connection between your art and your writing. Certainly makes sense that if you're interested in character in one area, that same interest would also reflect in another.

JJ said...

Setting definetly is not my cup of tea. I'm an artist on the side so the setting and surroundings of the scene just pop into my head. Describing it is a bit of a chore for me. I love character building though my stories usually have a limited cast. Ten characters max. Usually I come up with a cool bit of dialoge and build the scene around that.

smriti_dew@yahoo.co.in said...

I usually have one setting, one goal and one character at the inception phase. The rest flows once that settles...

Ava Jae said...

That sounds like a pretty concrete way to start. Thanks for sharing! :)

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