I’ve been a writer, in the story kind of way, since I was about nine. I was reading tons of Magic Tree House and thought it would be awesome to write adventurous stories like that. So, I started writing a story about a girl named Anna, who, in the first chapter, is escaping from her burning house, while her parents still sleep inside.
I never thought of myself as a particularly creepy kid until I looked back objectively on that particular memory.
Anyway, that’s about thirteen years of story ideas buzzing around in the void that is my brain. I’ve had tons of ideas over that time, and no way of looking back at it all. Some thoughts, unfortunately, are gone forever.
So, how did I start avoiding that? By keeping lists.
I keep my lists in the notes folder on my phone. It’s easy access, and I always have my phone on me. But physical, written lists are sure to work similarly.
Here are a few things I make sure to catalog.
Anyone who’s ever had a great story idea should know why this one is important. Writers, the obsessive little things that they are, often get hung up by the search for the perfect name. You don’t want the name to sound fake, but you also don’t want it too generic. And what if you want it to mean something, like, symbolically?
It’s a lot to think about.
A names list helps solve that problem. I keep a list of both first and last names, and I use parentheses to signify a really cool nickname.
Interesting names are everywhere, if you know where to look.
Some places I have seen some great names are:
movie credits (by the time the credits are rolling, it’s cool to whip out your phone)
cemeteries (an interesting afternoon trip, would not recommend nighttime visits for the faint of heart)
facebook (try searching a last name, and see what first names pop up with it)
historical wikipedia pages (try not to fall into a hole)
There are tons of baby name lists out there, which are what I used to default to, but keeping your own list is much more streamlined, and ensures you’ll find your own unique combinations!
Another thing that writers tend to be pretty passionate about are words.
I can’t get enough of ’em myself. And, you guessed it, I keep a list of all the ones I find especially attractive. These range from unknown, fancy words, to more common words, that are just underused in certain contexts. For instance, the word “bizarre” used to describe a certain facial feature, or the word “carousel,” but used figuratively, like in a metaphor.
I like to keep this one specific. I list the word, and why I like it for specific uses in the text!
3. Relationship Quirks
This is one of my favorites.
That’s because it’s something that adds so much dimension and truth to my writing.
We’ve all seen lists and lists of character traits and quirks for your individual character, and those are important for developing a character. But what I find to be even more defining for a character is how they interact with others.
Granted, I’m a sucker for literary relationships and friendships that seem plucked right from life. But really, who wouldn’t be. Authentic-feeling exchanges and conversations between characters are what make them seem human. For instance, the fact that Mary Sue and Bob Smith cannot physically bring themselves to stop making jokes about potatoes, or the way Joe squares his shoulders and sits up straighter whenever he’s around is old college buddies. These interactions are so personalized to each of us that they reveal things about us.
Obviously Mary and Bob get giddy whenever they’re around each other. And they have the same goofy sense of humor. Who would have thought potato jokes could be a great foundation for a relationship?
And it’s easy to tell that Joe likes to seem more tough when he’s around a bunch of guys. He wants their approval. He was possibly more of a girl’s guy in high school, and never fit in with the dudes.
I keep a master list of all of these quirks, but I also keep smaller lists for individual casts of characters, to keep track of how everyone acts around everyone else.
4. Spoken Quirks
This is another doozy that’s underrated in character creation.
Keeping track of the way a character speaks is the key to nailing the art of dialogue. It’s so important for each character to have their own voice, and assigning your characters individual speaking quirks works like a charm.
Some of my favorites:
That one kid that shortens every word
The vocabulary snob
The excitable rambler
This one should be obvious, but somehow it wasn’t for me.
One day I was mysteriously free of works-in-progress and thought I should go back and start developing a new idea. Only problem was I couldn’t really remember any of them. I was baffled, because I knew there were some sitting in the back of my mind.
So, I wracked my brain and rooted through all of my google docs, making a comprehensive list of every story idea I could remember. I realized it didn’t have to be super detailed, I would remember what “secret matchmaker society,” or “modern wizard of oz roadtrip” meant, as long as I could remember it existed somewhere, at sometime, in my brain.
Now I am able to refer back to my list every time I want to get inspired to work on something new.
Also, I get to look back on all of my more ridiculous ideas. You know, the ones that come to you at 2AM in the shower? I always laugh whenever I see “gay space musical” on my list.
Who knows, it could come in handy one day.