Friday, September 9, 2016

Where Did Your Character's Journey Really Begin?

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Every novel has a beginning. An opening paragraph. A first sentence. A compelling first line. And if you read on, you'll find that every novel has an inciting incident--a point of no return for the main character.

While this juncture--the opening of a Hogwarts letter, the reaping of a little sister, the realization that the wardrobe isn't just a wardrobe--compels a character down a road they may have not have otherwise taken, the story began long before this moment in time.

In this way, we have to differentiate between story openings and story origins. 

Consider Harry Potter. His story began long before he opened that Hogwarts letter. It began before the murder of his parents. It began long before Tom Riddle was born. Harry's story wouldn't have existed in its current state without all the work JK Rowling put in to develop the world around that one moment. 

According to her publisher's website, JK Rowling first came up with the idea for the Harry Potter books while she was sitting on a train, waiting through a delay, as she traveled from Manchester to King's Cross Station. From that fledgling idea, she fleshed out an entire world and gave the boy wizard a fantastical and compelling backstory that would lead him to open a letter, that would tell him to board a train, that would deliver him to the school that would change everything he ever knew. 

Rowling started with an idea that captured her imagination and she worked backwards.

She gave Harry's Hogwarts letter context. 

Most authors I know work the same way, but many of them would tell you that it wasn't always so. As new writers, we have a tendency to start with an idea that captures our attention and move forward without considering just how the main character arrived at that moment.

There are many elements worth considering as you develop your story's origin. Here are a few: 

1. Story world - How does the world around your main characters contribute to the situation they find themselves in now? We can see this clearly when we examine the Harry Potter books or the Star Wars movies. It's easy to point out story world development in science fiction or fantasy tales, but it's just as crucial in other works. The Book Thief wouldn't be The Book Thief without the tragedies of WWII. The same goes for Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. And what about Eleanor and Park? The story would have been vastly different if it hadn't been set in a decade and a part of the country where school buses were commonly ridden. Each of these authors used the world around their characters to provide context for the first moments of their stories.

2. Heritage - Where did your main character come from? The Hunger Games would be an entirely different story if Katniss had been President Snow's daughter, born in the Capitol, and had enough to eat every day of her life. Her family and her family's family matter to the story. Where her people lived and died touch deeply on her motivations and lead directly to the moment when she hears her sister's name called out over the crowd. These small things that make up Katniss as a living, breathing character were chosen specifically for the value they bring to the journey this character must undertake.

3. Regrets - What does your main character regret more than anything? When we first meet the star of your story, does he harbor any regrets? Has he done things he's ashamed of? This is an important thing to consider because many of our current circumstances find their root in decisions we've made in the past. The Welsh television series, Hinterland, features a detective who is clearly running away from something. We catch glimpses of it throughout the first few episodes and we understand it has something to do with his daughters. The mystery of it, the regret itself, is hidden but seeps out into everything he does especially when he is assigned a case involving a murdered child. This mistake that occurred before the story ever began is a vital part of this show's origin and frames both the lead and the crimes he investigates in a shade of melancholy that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. 

I've given you three areas to explore as you work backward from either your story's inciting incident or simply an intriguing idea. I certainly haven't exhausted the subject. Can you think of anything else we should consider when working to establish our story's origin? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Something I've been very conscious of lately is tone when relating to things on this list. The last story I wrote dealt with themes like grief and revenge but the one I'm working on right now is lighter in tone so I've tried to balance (most especially) the backstory I give to each character so it gives them problems to deal with, but isn't contradicting the tone of what's happening to them in the present.
    Thank you so much for sharing! :)


    1. Oooo! Very interesting thought. I, too, am very conscious of tone when I write. Thank you so much for sharing.

    2. Oooo! Very interesting thought. I, too, am very conscious of tone when I write. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. This is so helpful! I'm going to be doing this for my WIPs.