East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

These are not the characters you are looking for


18fc6q4rejarypngI was reviewing my creative process (or the sort of blind blundering I call that) trying to optimize it in order to get more good words on the page*, and I found out a few interesting bits about my modus operandi.
And I thought, why not inflict my newfound knowledge on my blog readers?

When I start a new story, I generally open my copybook (or a txt file) and I start jotting down ideas.
Basic premise and concept, quick sketches of the main characters, a list of places, maybe a very rough logline.

Sometimes it’s like doodling – I sit waiting for my turn at the doctor’s or at the post office, and I just write down stuff.
Maybe I’ll never use those ideas, maybe in a few weeks, or months, or years (provided I can still find the file or the copybook) they’ll come in handy.

While the actual shape of this one or two pages “ideas warehouse” can be highly variable, here’s a list of what I normally write

Title – a tentative, working title for my story
Series title – I generally think in terms of series, so I also try and dream up a cool title for the series to which the story might belong.
Cool ideas – the conceptual bits that would make the story worth writing – and reading.
Logline – a thing that comes from the movie industry and I discovered thanks to Holly Lisle‘s excellent Mugging the Muse, a logline can be described as

the one or two sentence summary of your film that not only conveys your premise, but also gives the reader emotional insight into the story as a whole

… it’s sort of a thing between a tag-line and a proper outline.
Characters – normally this begins with a list of names and associated concepts, plus a very rough Likes/Dislikes/Wishes for.
Places – the locations for the action.
w6lie67_new-sheetVarious setting ideas – the time (if I’m doing historical), the culture, the general mood.
Facts I need to check-out – historical details, visual references, etc.
Neat tricks – color-coding the characters, similes and metaphors, stuff.
Music – if I can think of a possible soundtrack for inspiration, I jot that down, too.

The lot can also be easily mind-mapped – and sometimes I do mind map this early stage of story development.

And finally, and here’s the bit that surprised me – there’s a list about what the main character (if I’m writing character-driven narrative, which is likely) is not.

For instance, in the notes for my first Asteria story, there’s a big, bold

Asteria is not Xena
Asteria is not Red Sonja

… up in the right corner of the page.
I drew a square frame around it, too.
I was planning a sword & sorcery story about a bold, strong action woman, and I did not want her to be like those more famous characters.
Not that I dislike them – quite simply, those characters already exist.
So I jot down a list of what characters my protagonist might be compared to, and then work actively to do something different, defying comparison.

Sometimes it is also useful doing the same thing for the setting, like

This is not the Hyborian Age

Working on what your characters and your setting are not can be quite a nice tool to keep at least a tiny little shard of originality, while operating inside common tropes.


I blame Rachel Aaron’s amazingly useful 2000 to 10000 as the reason why I’m doing a lot of changes… no, improvements, actually, to my routine

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “These are not the characters you are looking for

  1. Thanks so much for linking to my post! Appreciate it 🙂


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