Hello, Noveljutsu students. This is a heads up for anyone concerned about spoilers. The following are the properties that will be mentioned in this episode. We won't get too spoilerific about most of these, but if you really hate any kind of spoiler, be warned now.
Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
* The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
50 Shades of Gray by EL James
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Avatar: The Last Airbender by co-creators Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko
The Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal
* May contain moderate or heavy spoilers.
Last time we took a look at a few practices you can adopt to help you encourage creativity and manage inspiration. Today I’m going to dive into some of the places I’ve gotten ideas for the characters or plots in my novels, and maybe one of these sources will end up being a goldmine of ideas for you too.
1. Start with an interesting character.
Characters are the heart of stories, so it should be no surprise that many people first think up a character they love before they do anything else. I believe I've heard before that J. K. Rowling first envisioned a young Harry Potter sitting across from her on a train, and, however her reputation may have fallen more recently, her books are still among the most successful novels ever.
Take a look at characters from books, movies, or games you enjoy. If you've found a character you really love, instead of taking that character and writing fanfiction for them (though if you love writing fanfiction, that's okay too), try to define exactly what it is that draws you to that character. It might not be what you think it is.
People love that magical world J. K. Rowling created, and it's part of why her novels have been so successful, but people who love Hermione Granger don't usually love her because she's a witch. Many love her because she's intelligent and has a strong moral compass.
People don't love Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings because he's 3 feet tall with hairy feet. No, it's definitely not because of the hairy feet. They love him for his loyalty.
What exactly makes you love your favourite characters? Why not use that quality as a defining characteristic of a new character of your own? Give this new character their own backstory, dreams, and voice, then put them in a world and plot where that trait is going to be both tested and polished until it shines.
Look at Samwise Gamgee (from the Peter Jackson films) again. His loyalty to Frodo is frequently being tested. As he follows Frodo to Mordor, Sam gets dirty, hungry, and annoyed by Gollum. His life is constantly in danger, and this journey to Mount Doom isn't even Sam's quest. To top it all off, Frodo's strengths—both his physical strength and his ability to resist the powers of the ring—keep waning. As Frodo is affected by the ring and by Gollum's manipulations, he becomes less and less the kind of person who inspires loyalty. It's almost too much for Sam. He almost gives up, but in the end, he shows the strength of his loyalty by returning to Frodo's side under great peril, and he helps him finish his quest when even Frodo had given up.
Once you have an idea for a character you like, allow yourself some time to get to know them. Imagine what kind of world they would live in and what kind of trouble they might get themselves into. Beginning your story with an interesting character and fanning out from there can help you decide on the best setting and plot to tell their story.
2. Start with an interesting setting.
Characters may be the heart of a story, but a story needs more than heart to survive, and there's no reason you have to start with characters first. Why not start with a cool setting?
Often people who write fantasy or science fiction can spend weeks, months, or even years creating new worlds, but even if your story is set in a real place on earth, you can still get story ideas from it. Think about the places you've been to, seen, or heard of that you find interesting and let your mind wander.
Maybe you think about the Paris Catacombs. Do you ever wonder if someone's gotten lost down there? What do you think they found? If you're into murder mysteries, maybe you imagine they find a fresh body someone tried to hide among the bones. Or, if you write science fiction, maybe your character discovers an entire hall made up of the skulls of alien soldiers from a failed invasion that never got recorded in the history books. Who covered it up and why?
Don't want to write about a place on earth? Earth can still give you inspiration. Search YouTube for videos about rare natural phenomena like the lightning storms over the Catatumbo River. Do a google image search to find bizarre and beautiful places. What if those places were the norm on your world? How would that affect the people living there? How would it effect technology, culture and social structure, politics, and economies?
You could try drawing a map. This is a particularly good exercise for fantasy and some science fiction writers, but it might be worth trying even if you're inventing a place to exist in the real world. It doesn't matter if you don't draw well, and it doesn't matter if you don't have a complete picture in your head of what you're trying to draw, just start doodling.
Now take a look at your map. Where are the natural borders between nations or, if your map is smaller scale, between districts or households? Is there anything you drew that doesn't make sense, like mountain ranges in formations that would never occur naturally? (I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan.) Maybe those mountains didn't evolve but were built by merfolk in a time when the land was under the sea. Is there a smudge on your coastline? Maybe parts of the land were lost to the sea in an earthquake.
Where are the natural points of conflict in you map? If you have an oasis in the middle of a vast desert, there are probably people fighting over control of it. What happens to a boy who accidentally breaks a jug of precious water? What if the oasis is drying up because of people hoping to make a profit off a water shortage?
Take a closer look at your setting, because it can suggest likely plots and characters that'll fit naturally into that environment.
Music is storytelling all on its own and has been used to share culture, history, and imagination pretty much for forever. Music has a profound impact on our mood and emotions, and it can have a profound impact on your writing as well!
Some people can't write without music. Personally, I can't write with it, because it distracts me too easily, but I'm still inspired by music. Music not only can help you get the feel of certain scenes or characters, but it can also help you come up with an idea for your novel.
Now I haven't written this novel yet, but I once misheard some song lyrics. In my mind, I heard the singer say "part-time muse." I thought that sounded like a great title for a whimsical fantasy novel, and, if you're catching onto the pattern, you'll know that got me asking questions. What is a part-time muse? Why only part time? Why be a muse at all if you can be the artist? One day, one tiny misheard phrase may turn into another novel under my belt.
If you find music inspiring, let it carry your mind away with the possibilities.
When I say "stealing," I'm not telling you to actually steal another person's work. Don't do that. But if you're interested in writing, you probably know how inspiring other books can be. And you can use that inspiration.
The trick is not to plagiarize an entire story that belongs to someone else, but, just like I mentioned with characters, try to discover the core element of that story that hooks you, and write your own story based on that. Did you enjoy the Twilight series? So did E. L. James. By now many people know that her 50 Shades of Grey series started out as Twilight fanfiction, but ultimately the two stories are pretty different. (I assume. I've never actually read 50 Shades of Grey). And Tomi Adeyemi has been pretty open about how Avatar: The Last Airbender was a huge inspiration for her Children of Blood and Bone.
It's okay to take inspiration from other books, movies, video games, or what have you, just find a way to put your own spin on it.
5. Mix Genres and play with tropes
If you aren't careful with this one, it can backfire, but it can also breathe new life into tired stories. Try taking a story archetype or trope you like and put it in a genre it isn't often found in. Try setting it in a new time and place or cast a completely different character in the lead role.
Take a look at people who write retellings as an example. Alexa Donne on YouTube has done young adult retellings of Jane Eyre and Jane Austen's Persuasion but set them in space. I've recently been reading Mary Robinette Kowal's The Glamourist Histories series, which is often billed as "Jane Austen with magic." Beauty and the Beast has been rewritten so many times it might be hard to find a new angle to approach it, but there are lots of fairy tales, myths, and classic tales left to be reimagined.
A word of warning: you may think that mashing two genres together will make your book even more popular because fans of two genres will be drawn to your book, right? But the truth is often, rather than making your fan base bigger, you make it smaller. Fans of one of the genres you use might not be fans of the other, and if you're looking to get traditionally published, mixing genres can sometimes mean it's harder to find an agent who'll want to represent you.
That's one of the problems I'm facing now with my historical fantasy novel. There are agents who represent historical fiction marketed to adults, and there are agents who represent adult fantasy novels, but there are fewer agents who represent both. And, since I also write science fiction and novels for both adults and YA, if I want to find a single agent who can represent me throughout my career, my list of agents to query is smaller still.
But that doesn't mean you can't have fun mixing genres and create something wonderful, you just have to be aware that mixing genres willy nilly can sometimes close more doors than it opens.
6. Get interested in the world around you.
I feel like this one is kind of implied in all the entries before, but it's worth pointing out. At the risk of sounding like an inspirational poster, let life inspire you.
Be a creeper and observe the people around you. Pick up a science magazine. If you ride the bus, instead of tuning out on your commute, pay attention to the crowd around you. There have been some weird things that have happened when I've taken the bus. As long as it doesn't get too weird, go ahead and let it happen to you too.
I already mentioned looking up videos on YouTube about strange phenomena on earth, but there are also tons of videos about notorious outlaws or evil dictators or rare psychological disorders you never knew existed. Try subscribing to list or documentary channels. Get interested in this world, because I promise you there are amazing new stories to find out there.
Now that we've discussed several ways to come up with an idea, we can finally get started on Project: Noveljutsu. From this episode onward, I'll share the workings of one of my own novels and bring you along for the ride.
Sharing my novel here is a risk for me for a number of reasons, not least of which being: I'm not a perfect writer. There may be several topics I discuss on this blog that may not be my strengths as an author, even if I can recognize examples of other writers who do them well. I may fail to pull off some of the very things I talk about. I'm still learning. But my hope is you'll be able to learn alongside me, whether you learn from my successes or my failures. (Hopefully not too many of my failures.)
Another reason this is a risky move is that sharing my novel so openly on this blog is a great way to guarantee it never gets published. At least not traditionally.
Which is why I've chosen one of my older story ideas for Project: Noveljutsu. It's one that has already seen a form of publication in a way, and one that might be a little more prone to some tropey writing, but it is also one of the broadest stories I have. By that I mean it is the one novel I have that is going to be applicable to the most topics I intend to cover when we eventually get there—like inventing your own cultures and languages.
To give a little background, I originally had the idea for this novel back in high school. I'd planned to write an epic fantasy novel about a pantheon of gods who were at war. These gods would lend their powers to their human subjects, who would be forced to carry out the gods' war in the human realms, unable to defy the will of their patron god once that god's power was bestowed upon them.
I'd worked out the pantheon of gods, dividing their powers into factions that had natural opposites and allies, but I'd decided one of those gods, one with powers more dangerous in the human realm than any other, would have acted neutral in the war while at the same time secretly choosing human champions to carry out her wishes. The story would follow her first human champion and a few other characters who discovered him---this young man with strange capabilities they couldn't neatly fit into any known faction. They don't know if they can trust him. They don't know what side of the war he's on. He isn't even sure what side of the war he'd on until he's too intertwined in it to free himself.
But I never got around to writing this story.
When I got older and started thinking about making my very first webcomic, I adapted this idea to a more contemporary fantasy and greatly simplified the story in order to make it fit into the number of volumes I wanted. I got rid of the gods entirely because I simply didn't have enough pages to devote to explaining who they were or their relationship with mankind. Instead I made people's magical abilities random rather than belonging to a set number of factions, and I created a secret agency that sought to uncover people with dangerous abilities and eradicate them before they could unbalance the delicate status quo. But that original, epic fantasy version of the story I'd had in my head never went away, even after I'd completed making the webcomic version.
So the story I'm going to use for Project: Noveljutsu is yet another adaptation I worked on years ago. I readapted it for a fantasy novel once again, but, though the underlying story of a young man struggling and fearing a power he can't understand hasn't changed, this new version will be a bit different, and hopefully more improved, from both versions that came before. Stay tuned for future episodes to see how this story evolves!
Do you have a way you normally come up with ideas? Great! But for your this challenge I want you to try using a method you don't normally use. If you usually start with an interesting character, this time try drawing a map or using a line from a song as the theme of your story.
Try and come up with three potential story ideas from that method. If you feel like sharing, you can post your ideas down below or in the comments section of this episode on YouTube. Feeling protective of your ideas? That's fine. Why don't you tell us how you like to brainstorm? Is there something you do that's not on this list? Tell us what it is.
If you found this information interesting or helpful, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel or to my social media and share it with your bookish and writer friends.
See you next time!