Whenever you write a story, you’re creating a world for your characters and events to function in. This applies to whatever the story is about. Obviously, if you’re writing a fantasy saga, or a sci-fi epic, you’re literally creating a world (or worlds) from scratch. But even if you’re writing contemporary fiction, even if you’re setting it in an actual place – like the Melbourne CBD – and even if you’re trying to be as real-to-life as possible, it’s still operating within the parameters of your imagination.
So it’s important before you begin writing – and particularly if you’re embarking on a big project, like writing a novel – that you familiarise yourself as intimately as possible with your world and the characters who occupy it.
When we’re writing and hit a block, we’re actually asking one simple yet all-encompassing question:
What happens next?
Some might suggest plotting and outlining your story before you begin writing. Whilst that works for some, in my own experience I have only a rudimentary idea of the story I want to write, and it progressively reveals itself to me as I write. When I’ve tried plotting (the whole story), I’ve found the evolution (for me) inorganic, and then when I’ve tried to follow the outline, the story has schismed away from the bullet points I’ve made.
That’s me. Everybody has a different way of working, and if a method works for you, you should stick with it. But I think one of the issues that can still occur with outlining is that while you have everything bullet-pointed, how do you get your characters from Point C to Point D? If Point C is your protagonist awaking in the kitchen, a bloodied knife in their hand and their partner lying stabbed to death beside them, how do we get them to Point D, which might be fleeing in their car as sirens wail in the distance?
This comes back to familiarising yourself with the world of your story.
Write down the locations you’re going to use
Write down every location (you can think of that) you might possibly use. If you think there may be a scene where your protagonist meets somebody in a café, write down the name of that café. Get an idea of how that café looks. Get an idea of the layout. This might seem overkill, but it may become integral to the story.
The protagonist may be sitting in the café talking to somebody who has a clue to their partner’s death when a policeman walks in. Okay, where is the protagonist sitting in relation to the policeman? In the open, or does the café extend around a corner where the policeman can’t see them? Where are the toilets if the protagonist needs to hide? Is there a back exit? This is all stuff you should have a good idea about.
You don’t need to blueprint every location (although the main ones might be useful), but develop a good idea about the way places your characters might visit look.
Write down the characters who occupy these locations
Who owns this café? Who works there? What are their names? Again, this might seem like overkill, but one of the greatest wedges in momentum is when you know what’s going to happen in your story, but you have to stop to think up the name of some incidental character.
Your character might interact with the owner of the café. Are they married? Are they old? Young? Details like this can shape the way interaction unfolds.
Write down all the characters names
Write down the name of every character you believe you might use. The logic is the same as with the locations – you need to know people your protagonist might encounter. Sometimes, the existence of these characters might be a catalyst for new directions your story could go.
A hint on finding names: the internet is replete with name databases, and I’ve compiled folders of surnames for different nationalities. Some people might want to push that further and research what names mean, and find meanings that correlate with the purpose of their characters. But have a look around, so you transcend the boundaries of names your mind might typically conjure.
When coming up with names for so many characters, it’s easy to give characters names that might sound the same, e.g. Dane and Don. Similar-sounding names can confuse readers, or might just sound silly if they appear in the same scene. Here’s another tip: write out a lowercase alphabet and an uppercase alphabet. Every time you come up with a first name, cross out the letter that name begins with in the lowercase alphabet. Do the same with surnames and the uppercase alphabets. This will ensure you’re not doubling up on letters names begin with – at least not for your main characters. You still might come up with some silly combinations (I once briefly had the names ‘Jane’ and ‘Dane’), but it does help instil some immediate clarity.
Group your characters
Group your characters with their locations or functions. If you’ve named six characters who are staff at a café, write the name of the café, then list the six characters under it. If your protagonist has five friends, write your protagonist’s name, then list their friend’s name underneath. If they have partners, list them opposite, or if the couples have kids, diagram family trees. Grouping helps with quick referencing.
You may never use some of these locations and characters, but you’ll have a chart you can reference at any time.
All this might seem like a lot of work, and it can be, but it helps in creating the world your story is going to take place in, and familiarising you with that world.
The better you know your world, the less likely you are to get lost.