JWAM reader request no. 7: The storyless character

Dahlia Says:

Justine, what do you do when you have a great character but no story to put them in???
It’s a question that’s been bugging me for about a year, which is the amount of time I’ve had a plotless character in my head that I really want to write about… but can’t.
I don’t have anywhere to put her.

Hmmm. Tricky. I do touch on this with the ideas post and also the one on how to get unstuck. There’s much about plot generation there.

Maybe you should plonk your character down in a fairy-tale plot and see what happens? Holly Black did that with Valiant, reworking “Beauty and the Beast” to most excellent effect. (I adore that book.)

One of the satisfying things about rewriting a familiar story is how it can surprise you. Because your character is not Cinderella or Puss’n’Boots when you put them in their shoes you’ll find your character has transformed the story so that’s it’s almost unrecognisable. It took me awhile to realise that Valiant was a rewrite of “Beauty and the Beast”. (I can be thick that way.)

It could be that the book for this particular character of yours just isn’t ready yet. Perhaps you need longer than a year to think and mull and let the story grow. It took me three years before I was ready to write the Liar book.

Often I just start typing in the character’s voice and the story starts to unfold and take me in unexpected directions. How To Ditch Your Fairy started with Charlie ranting about how much she hates her parking fairy. Her voice was clear and strong right from the beginning. I knew instantly who she was, but I had to figure out where she was, why she wanted to get rid of her fairy so much, and what would happen when she did. What is now the third chapter of the book was the first thing I wrote.

On the other hand, I’ve also started writing a character and gotten no further than that. Back in the olden days, I had loads of characters who never found a short story to live in, let alone a novel. They were nothing more than character sketches. But they taught me a lot about writing people and dialogue.

As I’ve discussed, there are many ways to generate story. Throwing things at your character teaches you a lot about them (Aristotle’s drama is character revealed through action yet again). Make their life complicated. Give them relatives, friends, impediments, responsibilities, a shitty job.

When I started Magic or Madness, Reason was on her own a lot. It was really boring. So I added another character, Tom, who pushed the plot in all sorts of interesting directions. There’s nothing more boring than one person in a room. Add another one. Add two. Why not four? Have them argue. Right there you have the plot engine of Scott’s Midnighters series: five midnighters arguing with each other for three books.

More people = more complications = more plot.

Whenever I’m stuck I throw more stuff in. That’s the engine of all novels: more stuff being thrown in. Take Pride & Prejudice. Pretty early on you learn that there’s a husband and a wife with five daughters. She’s hellbent on getting them married off. He’s worried about them not being provided for, though is too lazy to do much about it. Two new marriage prospects come to town. One of the daughters falls for one of them and he for her. One of them is slighted by the other new bloke in town.

More and more stuff keeps happening. More blokes are thrown into the mix, as well as aunts and uncles, also illness, vapours, marriage proposals, refusals, acceptances, elopements, miscommunications, lies, zombies. More and more complications. So it goes until the book reaches its climax, resolving the miscommunications and complications, and rushing (too quickly!) to its end.

Your character needs other people, other stuff, a quest, a band, a mission, a zombie apocalypse to react against in order to have a story. Your job is to get them out of the blank white room and into a wider (and hopefully exploding) universe.

Good luck!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.


  1. Dahlia on #

    Thanks for answering my question, Justine. That post was really helpful. Come to think of it, I only have one character, so I’ll definitely have to try adding more people and see where it goes. Thanks again. 🙂

  2. Steve Buchheit on #

    Dahlia, about five years ago I had this character, a guy in a really nice linen suit sitting midday in a coffee shop. I had no idea why or who he was, but every so often he’d show up and look at me meaningfully, expecting me to know. Who was he, what the heck was he doing in a coffee shop, mid day, in a suit? It drove me insane. No story lines worked, he was obstinate about it.

    Then about two years ago I was IMing with a friend, joking about a link he had sent me, getting real silly, driving a thought to it’s most absurd conclusion. Then he made a comment about something else completely off topic. And that’s when his story came to me. I knew exactly what he was doing, why the suit, why the coffee shop, why the middle of the day. And now I’m finally writing that novel.

    It just took being exposed to two new ideas and mixing them together.

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