A trap authors often fall into is treating their characters and their situations as if they are born on page 1 (or whatever page they’re introduced). Prior to that, they have no history whatsoever. They’ve never experienced anything. They’ve never encountered anything.
The problem is these characters and situations lack depth and verisimilitude. They are contrivances existing for the sake of propelling the story where it needs to go. But motivationally they’re weak, and under examination they unravel. A reader who’s not discerning might be happy, but most readers need a little more substance.
Consider this scenario: as a child, our protagonist grew up in a beautiful house overlooking the beach, the setting sun often a gorgeous backdrop. When the protagonist was 14, the family moved. Now middle-aged, the protagonist comes back to this house as a visitor. If you want to take this example further, write a scene about how they would feel.
Try this exercise again, but let’s include some history: when the protagonist was 14, their 8-year-old sibling one morning left the house, crossed the road, and drowned in the ocean. Heartbroken, the family moved, but they were never – and could never be – the same. The parents plodded along in a cold and empty marriage, then finally separated. The protagonist often blamed themselves for not watching their sibling, and the parents weren’t supportive. Now, middle-aged, the protagonist comes back to the house as a visitor.
How has that history shaped the present? How has it contextualised the protagonist’s response? How do your two pieces differ?
It’s important to consider why your characters are the people you need them to be to tell your story. Some writers wouldn’t give that much work. Their characters would emerge from the same inspiration that provided the spark for the story, but characters deserve more than that. It doesn’t have to be some lengthy dossier, but writers should have a general idea about their characters outside of who they are in the moment. Thrashing out some details is helpful, e.g. the names of their parents, what their parents did for a living, what they did for work, if it was a happy marriage, if there’s siblings, where they lived, etc. This gives us a better picture of our characters and, again, it will help shape the choices they make throughout the story.
The same applies to situations. Inspiration might’ve provided the following premise: our protagonist has been an embittered but functioning alcoholic for the last year; they work as an air traffic controller, have gambling debts, their dog runs away, and in the third chapter they’re hit by a car, which breaks their leg and puts them in hospital. All this might come to us as absolute: it just is. And the story might be about our protagonist’s journey to some form of balance.
But serious thought should be given to the logic of the character and the situation. What drove them to alcoholism? Why do they gamble? Do they have other addictions? What sort of dog do they own? Why did they buy it? Etc. (Using the above scenario, the drinking might be a result of a guilt due to their sibling’s death – already, a causal relationship between the past and the present is being established.)
And situationally …?
Imagine in chapter one we have a scene where the protagonist’s superior smells alcohol on their breath. This creates tension, right? But we’ve established that our protagonist has been a functioning alcoholic for the last year – surely something like that would’ve already happened? We can’t treat the character and the situation as if they were born on page one, and these sorts of things would’ve never happened previously when all the evidence overwhelmingly suggests it should’ve. If it hasn’t, then we need either justify why that hasn’t happened, e.g. the protagonist has always been careful, but now their drinking has worsened and they’re struggling to continue disguising their problem, or they’ve gotten a stricter and more observant boss.
Think about books you’ve read, or TV shows or movies you’ve watched, where this has happened – a character encounters a situation or a situation exists which, upon examination, seems to have been born on page 1. If you look, you’ll surprise yourself with what you do find.
Give thought to the foundations your story, its occupants, and their circumstances are built on.
You might start writing on page 1, but your story has actually begun well before that.