Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing get answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber. If you have questions for our expert, you can submit them to writingquestions@writermag.com.

Character

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I'm interested in stories that are set in unique locations. I'll pick a setting, but then I can't get the hang of mixing in all the other important things, like character and conflict. Do I have to start with character?

You don’t have to start with character, but character does need to factor into the process pretty quickly. Character is the engine of fiction and without it your writing might be a beautiful rumination or a quirky description, but it won’t be a story. As a way to begin to think about the connection between people and place, you might compile a dossier of this place, including profiles of characters that frequent it, significant events that have happened there, or a description of day-to-day life.

Jim Shepard’s short story “Love and Hydrogen” is a love story between two crewmen on the Hindenburg. It takes place on what we know from history to be the final voyage of this airship. Shepard was struck by the idea of the Hindenburg while browsing the children’s section of the bookstore with his son. When this interest took hold, Shepard said he did what he always did: “I started researching, and hoped that all of the reading would start setting off bells somewhere, would generate that vaguely excited feeling of a possible story beginning to coalesce.” So you might do that—continue looking into this place. Read about it. Look at images and videos. Read recollections and histories of the area. If you can, experience it yourself. You may find a character emerges. Or you may find a situation, conflict, or snippet of possible conversation and, exploring that, find character follows.

You’re looking for the compelling, individual human experience of this location. How might this place aggravate or alleviate a conflict? How might it contribute to a longing? How could a character interact with it in a way that sheds light on a personal concern? If you’re drawn to the place and find a character that seems like an interesting fit, forge ahead. You may not know the answer to the questions posed, but you’re bound to stumble upon them if you keep going.

Let’s return to Shepard’s experience writing “Love and Hydrogen.” He knew he needed something beyond the Hindenburg and its details: “And that something was provided when, surprising myself, I wrote a page or so after having introduced my two protagonists, ‘Meinert and Gnüss are in love. This complicates just about everything.’ Which, I discovered happily, turned out to be the case.” So the lesson here might be this: Write. You’re bound to surprise yourself with exactly what the story needs.