Questions some authors dread: Where do you get your ideas?

“Yes I am writing you into my book! You're gruesomely butchered on page 76. You're welcome!”

“Yes I am writing you into my book! You’re gruesomely butchered on page 76. You’re welcome!”

Every writer who has ever given a reading at a bookstore or convention and/or appeared on writing panels at a convention, has been asked a variant of the question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Some authors dread it. Others have a funny answer. I am going to give you three answers: the funny answer, the truthful answer, and then the real answer:

  1. Once you obtain your Artist License, you receive a quota of ideas monthly from the Ideas of the Month Club™.
  2. No one really knows the exact nature of the alchemy in an author’s subconscious that synthesizes our experiences, conversations, and other information we encounter into ideas.
  3. The fact that you ask that question indicates you’re looking at the storytelling process completely wrong.

The funny answer is play on words. The term artistic license doesn’t describe an actual license one earns or applies for, but rather it describes the phenomenon of the distortion of fact or alterations of convention which is sometimes made in the name of art. A movie “based on real events” will take a lot of artistic license with the events in order to create an interesting and cohesive story, for instance. So the joke is a way to not answer the question; because the answer isn’t straightforward.

The truthful answer is that writers and other artists concoct their ideas usually unconsciously based on or in reaction to stories we’ve read, art we’ve seen, and so on, blended with things we’ve observed throughout our lives. Both art teachers and writing teachers I’ve known are fond of saying, “Hacks borrow, artists steal.” Humans have been telling each other stories through stories, painting, music, dance, and other art forms for tens of thousands of years. There is no such thing as a plot that hasn’t been used before. But a good storyteller doesn’t worry about that, because what makes a story ours is the individual spins we put on elements, our personal perspective, and our own style. Yes, that does mean that characters in our stories often contain elements of the personalities of people we know in real life. But they’ll contain elements from several people. Even when we intentionally base a character on someone we know, we make changes in order to fit the character into our story. Or we’ll combine the personality traits of the person we’re basing the character on with those from other people—maybe people who remind us of the person, maybe not.

The real answer may seem a little harsh, but the things that most people mean when they ask a writer about “ideas” are not the important part of writing. People asking that want to know why an author decided to make the second detective a robot, or where the notion of a flat world balanced on the back of four elephants riding through interstellar space on a giant turtle came from, or how someone came up with the idea of the character Yoda. Those things are, in one sense, merely window dressing. They aren’t the heart of each of the stories in which they occur. Sometimes, yes, a writer may start from a single question or a prompt from somewhere, but what makes the story are all the connections between the various elements. It’s how the author puts all those things together and makes them work together as the protagonist is confronted by a problem, deals with the problem and the complications that arise from it, and eventually resolves it (for good or ill) at the end.

All those elements that folks mean when they ask about ideas are part of the story. Some of them are even integral to the tale, but the magic is how they work together. Just thinking up the idea of a girl with a magical ability to control all things made out of paper, for instance, isn’t enough. The author has to put that character into a world, make her interact with the other characters, and most importantly make you believe, at least for a bit, that she’s a real person facing a very real crisis.

Sometimes we know where a particular idea came from. For instance, one night at my writers’ group, after we had gone over some scenes I had written from the first novel in the Trickster series involving some of the wizards, my friend Mark made the comment that he thought it would be funny if there was a mage in the world who was always wearing a whole bunch of gold chains, and generally conducted themself like a parody of the 70s or 80s gangster villain. It so happened that I needed a dangerous but comedic mage to fill the role of second-in-command for The Rage Regiment (a group of sort of anarchist wannabes that would figure more prominently in later parts of the series), I just hadn’t figured out her personality or anything. Mark’s description nudged me into filling in details (those dozens and dozens of gold chains around her neck each held magic amulets and the like, making her a walking arsenal; her flying carpet is a converted hearse, et cetera) that eventually came together as Sister Blister, underling to Mother Bedlam.

But the truth is, most of the time the author doesn’t know where the parts that a reader finds most interesting came from. We may know that we gave certain personality traits to a particular character because someone of our acquaintance has those traits and we find them interesting (or frustrating, or endearing, et cetera). And yes, sometimes we’ll base a character that horrible things will happen to on someone we have known in the past who we think deserved horrible things to happen to them. Or we’ll base a character on some other author’s character and give them a happy ending because we think that person deserved something better than what happened to them in the original story. But if we’re good, we’ll file the serial numbers off, and the vast majority of readers will never recognize the character we’ve created an alternate universe version of.

There is no simple answer. There is no magic process we can teach you, no sure-fire mechanism we can share that will generate “ideas” on demand. There are tricks we can use to help us write when we’re blocked and so forth. But the answer I gave above that I labeled truthful really is: no one knows the exact nature of the process. Our brains mix and match and percolate and conjoin all sorts of things from our life experiences, and sometimes something wonderful blossoms from it. And when it does, we have to get to work, making the something wonderful work in a story.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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