The Journal: Character with a Problem, Part 3

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: Character with a Problem, Part 3
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Joan Didion

“The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene: It tells you. You don’t tell it.” Joan Didion

“Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.” Joan Didion

“Vanity publishers are always and everywhere a bad path for any author to take.” The Passive Guy

Topic: Character with a Problem, Part 3

In the email that started this three-part series of topics, as his main question to me, my friend wrote this:

“I know you’ve done this in the past, but since everything seems to hinge on it, could you tell us how you discover your characters, especially the initial one? Do they present themselves and say ‘tell my story,’ or do you find yourself ‘eavesdropping’ on a character and ask yourself who they are and what they are doing? That initial character inspiration seems to be the thing that sets it all rolling.

Before I address his question, though, he also wrote this in a subsequent email:

“I guess in addition to not worrying about what the character ‘wants’ in the bigger picture, I also maybe need to let go of what I WANT as a writer.”

Yes. “What I want as a writer” has no place in a fictional story. Why? Because it isn’t your story. It isn’t a story you’re living. It’s the story your characters are living, so let them tell it. “What I want as a writer” belongs solidly in essays or articles or memoir or personal letters.

If your neighbors returned home from a vacation and regaled you with tales from their trip, would you even think of saying, “Nope. It didn’t happen like that. What actually happened was this”?

Of course you wouldn’t. Because your neighbors are telling THEIR story, not your story of what you did while they were gone. Show the same respect to your characters as they live their story. And be glad you’re the one they deigned to tell it to.

And now, finally, to answer my friend’s first question, sure. Here you go:

I don’t “discover” my characters. I happen across them. Or maybe they find me. Maybe a faceless, nameless guy (or girl) says a line of dialogue with a particular accent, or no accent at all.

As my wife and I were driving back from Tucson one day on the freeway, I burst out laughing. She looked at me like I had two heads. “What?”

I grinned and said, “You don’t want to know. A character just popped into my head.”

“What’d he say?”

After I issued the appropriate warning, she still wanted to know.

I laughed again and in my best Brooklyn accent (trying to imitate the character), I repeated what he said: “Oh, I din’t tell you? Maybe it wasn’t nona’a your f***ing business.”

That, eventually and probably, will become a story about a wiseguy. If I ever write it. If the voice and attitude appeals to you, knock yourself out. By the way, when you read that line of dialogue did you “see” the character? Yeah, I find a lot of characters like that.

Or maybe I “see” my characters in a piece of art in which no humans reside. I’ve written at least three short stories based on a single print of an oil painting that hangs above my desk. In the most recent story (which is still unpublished), I saw a guy standing at a window watching the people at the tables at the sidewalk café on the corner below him.

In another, I saw a wounded guy (around the time of the Spanish Civil War) lying on a white-ring quilt in a room above the café. In another, I saw another wounded guy around the same time period leaning against the back of the building in the alley (the alley is not present in the print) as a young, barefoot woman in a dark grey dress ran toward him.

Sometimes watching horses run in a pasture gives me an idea. Or seeing a one-armed guy walking down the road pushing a lawnmower. Or “seeing” a guy lying behind a sniper rifle in a jungle, hunting the guy who’s hunting him. I’d put the names of them here, but I don’t remember all of them. They weren’t important to remember, or important at all. They were only stories.

What I write (the story or novel) is not important in and of itself. THAT I write is what’s important to me. Any importance of the stories themselves is assigned by the reader.

So you really can get story ideas—great story ideas—literally anywhere. They’re all over the place.
Today, as I was writing a chapter of my current novel, another story idea popped into my head. WHILE I was writing. WHILE my fingers were moving over the keyboard. I might write it later, and I might not.

But no, I didn’t stop and write it down. If it comes back, it comes back. Ideas are not important. They’re not golden. They’re just ideas, and they’re a dime a gross.

Again, what you write isn’t important. What’s important is THAT you write. And the easiest way I know of to start is to come up with a character with a problem, drop him or her into a setting, then sit down and write the opening. If the opening takes off (and they usually do) just keep writing until the characters lead you through to the end of the story. And if it doesn’t take off, so what? Chuck it and write another opening on that idea or on another one.

Once you become practiced at writing a character with a problem in a setting, you’ll wonder why you used to think story ideas were so difficult to come by, or that you had to wait for “inspiration” to strike. Because you will be deluged with them. You will wonder, as another writer told me recently, how writers CAN’T come up with ideas.

Seriously. If you want to be a writer, you must write. That’s Rule 1. And really, it’s the only one that matters.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Do You Change Your Book Cover?” at

See “Joan Didion: Why I Write” at Who knew Joan Didion writes into the dark? I didn’t but I’m not surprised (see the third Quote of the Day above). This article is chock full of knowledge and story ideas. Thanks to my friend Gary V. for sharing this.

See “Vanity Press Storm Warning: Waldorf Publishing” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1530 words

Writing of The Journey Home: Part 6 (novel)

Day 1…… 1628 words. Total words to date…… 1628
Day 2…… 2011 words. Total words to date…… 3639
Day 3…… 4722 words. Total words to date…… 8361
Day 4…… 3766 words. Total words to date…… 12127
Day 5…… 5161 words. Total words to date…… 17288
Day 6…… 6572 words. Total words to date…… 23860
Day 7…… 4680 words. Total words to date…… 28540

Total fiction words for January……… 91643
Total fiction words for the year………… 91643
Total nonfiction words for January… 25330
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 25330
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 116973

Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 55
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 215
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31