As I am sure happens with many writers, I am often asked, “Where do you get these stories?” The honest answer for me, at least, is that I usually don’t ‘get’ them. They ‘get’ me. A bit of flash fiction I am now in the throes of polishing is instructive.
Sitting outside on my back deck, I was enjoying a cup of coffee and the warm sunshine and beautiful weather that is late October in Arizona. I wasn’t particularly trying to develop a story; I was just basking in sunshine and letting my mind roam as it will. A ‘face’, if you will, flashed through my thoughts. It was an interesting face, massively scarred. A name followed close behind. The name linked to the scarred face.
That was all it took for me. I gave up my spot in the warm sunshine and headed in to my office. An hour later I had done the research I needed to do for the story that had germinated and was beginning to sprout in my head. It wasn’t a major story. It wasn’t significant in any way. I had a character, a name, and I knew what that character was going to do. In other words, I had my story, complete for a flash fiction piece, and needed only to get it down on ‘paper’ , i.e., my word processing software.
Fifteen hundred words later, the story was told. I sat back to read what I had written. And realized that this wasn’t the story I had planned to write at all!
The first, and most glaring, change from my initial plan was that my protagonist had refused his role as the lead character. A secondary character, destined to become a corpse, suddenly took center stage and refused to relinquish the spotlight — though he did wind up a corpse anyway. The back story now loomed large and demanded thousands of words of its own. A walk-on ‘spear carrier’ character walked back on stage at the denouement and suggested that there were several stories that could be told just about him. As this fifteen hundred word bit of ‘fluff’ had a science fictional setting, the barely mentioned ‘universe’ created in my head to contain the story took on a life of its own and interested me enough to toy with the idea of developing that universe further.
Nor is the example above the first time characters and stories have taken off in directions unimagined by this writer. It matters not whether I am working on a longer story wherein I start by developing detailed, multi-page character ‘spec’ sheets or shorts where I just sit down and start writing as above. Even with a detailed internal and external description of a character, that character may develop a mind of their own. I’m struggling with a novel in progress for precisely that reason right now. A primary character, though not the intended protagonist, is threatening to take over that role, relegating my intended protagonist to a secondary, love interest spot.
In another instance — a 4,000 word short story — a secondary character, intended to be little more than a walk-on at the outset, developed so well in writing the story that I am now doing research with the thought that this detective might become a leading character for a series of stories, possibly even a novel.
What’s a poor writer to do? Characters write their own stories, ignoring my carefully planned out plots. Background material, intended as ‘descriptive filler’, screams out “Hold on, Charley. You need several thousand more words to develop this ‘background’ to its full potential.” Minor walk-on characters turn into individuals demanding their own story be told.
As I said, very frequently the stories and characters ‘get’ me. I don’t ‘get’ them. I’m just the writer, along for the ride.