Writing a Novel: Do you start with a character or a situation?

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If you enjoy books and writing…

The following is the first in a three-part series about the craft of writing, specifically characters and situations, why we write stories, and how to refill the creative well. These conversations took place in early October 2015 with author Tony Simmons and myself.

Mark: We were talking the other day about characters. You read Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and he says he always starts with a situation; I started thinking, how predominant is that? How many authors start with a situation versus starting with a character? When you told me about your Alabama trip, it seemed like the seed of it, the germ was the character first. What triggered that idea, and then did you build the situation around that character?

Tony: I think that story came out of inundating — immersing myself in a bunch of unrelated ideas. I’m in Birmingham, and there’s a lot of stuff about the Confederacy, it’s an iron town — that whole blacksmithy, iron works, steam era feel to it. And I’m reading a lot of steampunk. All of those things fed into the mulcher, and then, driving home, seeing those old Southern city names —

Mark: Specifically, Jemison and Thorsby. Were they in that order?

Tony: Yes.

Mark: Because you might not have thought of it (if they were in the reverse order).

Tony: Right. That came from character first, from a mixture of the names and a time period I had floating around in my head. So in a way, the situation was kind of already there. I was primed to find a story that was steeped in the Old South.

Mark: Which is quite a departure, because I’d say most steampunk, maybe 90 percent of it, is Victorian England. At best, they cross the Channel to France. So Steampunk-USA is a departure.

Tony: With my Caliban stories, it definitely came out of character first. I was 14 years old and wanted to write Doctor Strange. Before I knew it, I wasn’t writing about the wizard, I was writing about the kid he trained and the development of his potential as a magic-user. Over the years, both of those characters kind of developed in the back of my head. — So, how about you, Mark? Character or situation?

Mark:  Looking at the last few books, I realize I’m going more ‘situation.’ My thing was a “what-if.” What if all these bad things happened at the same time? I love zombie things, and zombies were very big at the time. And yet I thought, okay, what if we ramped it up? Because one apocalypse is not enough for me. That’s just too slow. I want to see us get devastated. So you throw in aliens — the classic thing of alien invasion — and then you throw in a robot uprising, and then we’re starting to get it boiling. We’ve brought it up to temperature. Then I started thinking, everyone is going to be caught in this, but we don’t want to follow the people who just sit in their basement and wait for it to stop. We want to follow people out there actually doing things. The books jump around a fair amount to different characters. Even so, I tried to focus on the excitement: Let’s go look for the most important things happening or the most fun things happening. That was more a situation thing, but I had never thought hard about it until recently.

In the next post, we’ll address the question: Why do we make up stories?

(If you found this interesting, hit the button on the right and sign up for my mailing list. No spam, just good content and a free story.)

You can find Tony Simmon’s novels in paperback and ebook here at Amazon.

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3 thoughts on “Writing a Novel: Do you start with a character or a situation?

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