The Care and Feeding of Novel Ideas

The Care and Feeding of Novel Ideas


Thanks to for the intro and outro music!

ASK THE AUTHOR: From James Earls via How do you keep from duplicating things you read-putting stuff into your own work? In other words, how do I keep it original or as much as possible?

AARON: This is a fascinating question, and one we haven’t really explored. Maybe we could do a whole cast on this in the future. I think there’s a variety of answers, and I’m sure Pops will have some other ideas, but my first response is to say that, as writers, it’s our duty to change things up. It’s okay to be inspired by what you’ve read, but you don’t want to write a simple analog of another novel. Think “It’s Romeo and Juliet but…” and then have a definite difference that will change the entire novel so it seems fresh. “It’s Wagon Train, but in space! It’s Star Wars, but with dragons! It’s Hamlet, but with lions!” Or you can change the ending, or base your protagonist on a character you love, but put him or her in a new situation. How would Monk handle a murder in the sewer? How would Luke Skywalker behave if he were exploring a sunken ship? How would Jack Sparrow behave if he were trapped under thirty feet of ice in Antarctica? I think there’s a lot of power in the combination of ideas and the twisting of ideas. The goal is not to write characters who are note-for-note like the ones you love, but those who are just different enough to make them unique.

POPS: There are very few truly unique plots, but there are endless variations. The key for me has been not to read in the same genre I’m writing in. By that I mean, if I writing a supernatural suspense novel, I don’t read supernatural suspense…while I’m writing. I read it otherwise. It is not uncommon for people to come up with similar a premise for a story. I was to start a novel once, went to the movies the day before, and saw a trail for a nearly identical plot. It’s your characters and approach that makes the difference–especially your characters and your locale.

Molly: If when you’re proofing your own work, you’re thinking of someone else’s, you need to change it. It can be as simple as Aaron mentioned- a twist of ideas. One of the best ways to change things can be to put in the opposite of what it reminds you of. If your character/setting is The Old Man and the Sea, see how it works if you write the man on a horse in a desert. If your setting has to be the sea, does it have to be an old man? Lastly, if you’re concerned your work borders on unoriginal content at best and near plagiarism at worst, have a trusted family member or friend read it and offer suggestions for resolution.

Firsts in Fiction


Ideas can come from a variety of places, and as writers, we’re very good at asking the “what if” question. But we’re not always great at the “what next?” question. Often, we’ve got the seed of an idea, but we don’t know where to take it from there. How do we plant it, water it, and watch it blossom into something beautiful? Here are some ideas.

  • Start with a compelling “What if?” question.
    • The “what if” should be reducible to two or three lines.
    • Should have a “high concept”: A very short description that says it all. Examples:
      • Star-crossed lovers find each other–on the Titanic.
      • Bambi meets Godzilla–Bambi wins.
      • A child falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a strange new and dangerous world.
      • Someone learns how to clone dinosaurs.
    • Should have “high stakes.” What happens if the protagonist fails? Who gets hurt? Who dies? How does the world change?”
  • Ask yourself, “What next?”
    • Okay, so there’s a giant Death Star that’s ready to blow up planets. What next?
    • Okay, so there’s this super powerful supernatural force that can be used as a weapon. What next?
    • This simple question can be used to flesh out your ideas. Take Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Okay, so the kid sees dead people. What next? Oh yes, he can predict terrorist events.
    • Escalate tension over the span of the story. Squeeze the protag more and more.
  • Ask yourself, “Who’s involved?”
    • If you’re beginning with a plot, it’s important to know who your major players are. You’ll need a protagonist and sometimes an antagonist. You’ll need a supporting staff.
    • Think in terms of archetypes to begin with, if you’re stuck, but don’t stop there. Make them unique. Change up their history.
    • Some characters will be necessary. On a naval ship, you’ll need naval personnel. In a military thriller, you’ll need soldiers. In a tech thriller, you’ll need a tech guy. But it doesn’t mean that your protagonist must be involved in that way. Think of the teacher on the space shuttle, or the CIA analyst on board a submarine. Think of the character who’s in over their head. This can really ratchet up the tension.
    • Characters should be capable, but not perfect. Ask yourself, how are they flawed? Where are they strong?
    • Need a clear protagonist even if you have an ensemble cast. The protagonist is the key to success and survival. Your protagonist is crucial to the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
      • Let your protagonist grow.
      • I prefer to learn about my protags as I write.
    • Need an antagonist.
      • Bigger and badder and often more capable than the protagonist. Money. Skill. Followers. An ability to somehow dictate trouble.
    • Need support characters.
    • Need facilitating characters.
  • Ask yourself, “What do they want?”
    • Character motivation is key. You can always go with the simple motivations (the space-ship captain trying to save her crew, the tech guy trying to protect America’s digital infrastructure, the jilted bride trying to cope with loss, insecurity, and doubt). But there must be a compelling reason for the protag to enter the fray.
    • Sometimes character motivations are more complex (manipulating those he loves for his own gain–trying to con a target out of their money–trying to con their target out of love, etc.)
    • Make your characters want something that is in direct conflict of other characters.
  • Ask yourself, “How do they win?”
    • It’s important to know the endgame. You don’t have to know before you start writing, but the sooner you know, the easier the book is to write.
    • You may not know the details of their success, only that he/she/they will somehow survive and win. [I (Al) often have no idea how my characters will achieve their goal when I first start a book. ZERO-G’s initial problem was a mystery to me; OUT OF TIME was filled with problems for me. HARBINGERS often left me with a sore brain.]
    • Perhaps the answer is “they don’t.” In that case, you’re probably writing a tragedy, which are often not super popular.
  • Ask yourself, “Why now? Why here?”
    • The time and place your story takes place should be important. Avoid choosing a setting randomly. Think of influences like culture, politics, economy, technology, etc.
    • What world would best serve your story? Something strange and alien? Something familiar and cozy? A real town? An imaginary town?
    • How would the events of your story differ if they took place elsewhere? Or during another era?
  • Ask yourself, “How do I introduce the problem early?”
    • Prologue
    • First chapter
    • Does not start off fully defined. Part of the joy of reading is learning what’s going on.
    • In some cases, the characters have to be defined/introduced first (Nero Wolfe, ex.)
  • Ask yourself, “What when?
  • Ask yourself, “What then?”
    • If you know the opening, ask yourself what the next natural step is. Maybe there are several options. Explore them all (maybe on paper) to see where they lead. Different choices lead to different consequences.
    • Make your characters choose. It helps define who they are. And let the natural consequences come. The consequences often determine the next steps of your plot.
  • Ask yourself, “So what?”
    • Why does all this matter? What’s at stake? A marriage? A relationship? A family? An economy? The lives of millions of people? The world? Someone’s independence or freedom?
    • If it matters to your character, it will matter to the reader.
  • Ask yourself, “Which Point of View (POV) is best for this novel/story?”
  • Ask yourself, “How can I resolve the story?”

20 thoughts on “The Care and Feeding of Novel Ideas”

  • This blog helped me create a story idea, and I learned the key parts of a story such as an antagonist, protagonist, and supporting characters.

  • The Care and Feeding of Novel Ideas has taught me how to write about my characters and their actions. I had some trouble with starting my Characters main goal, however this blog has and the podcast has brightened my story ideas. I usually stop in the middle of my writing, because i forget where the story is going and don’t know how to keep the story going. As i listened to the podcast i found out how to keep my story interesting and how to keep the motivation

  • What I learned from the Care and Feeding and Novel Ideas is the importance of the small details of a novel and/or story. The elements that bring significance to a story (such as the antagonist, protagonist, POV, etc) must grow as things progress in order for the reader, and even the writer, to want to continue or know how to continue. This podcast has taught me how important it is for me to keep that in mind while writing.

  • The Care and Feeding of Novel Ideas helped me understand the role of protagonists, antagonists, and supporting or side characters. All of these things bring a story to life and without them there is no story.

  • This podcast helped me understand what a protagonist in a story should have, as well as an antagonist and supporting characters. These characters must progress not only for the reader but for the writer as well.

  • I agree with Ashley, I to struggle with figuring out my characters main purpose in my stories but I have learned from this podcast the antagonist and protagonist.

  • This blog helped me realize that there are more to stories. This blog made me understand what a protagonist and an antagonist and supporting characters are. You should have these characters in your story or else it isn’t a story.

  • This pod cast helps understand antagonist and protagonist.It also helped me with different ideas for characters and stories.

  • The Care and feeding of Novel ideas, is pretty cool. I like how it explains to me how the antagonist, protagonists and supporting characters are and how they intertwine with each other to create a story. Because without the characters there is no story.

  • The Care and Feeding of Novels helped me get more ideas about protagonist and antagonist. It help me to expand my intellect on what you need to keep in mind when creating a protagonist and antagonist.

  • The idea of building the character off of the story rather than the other way round, story off of a character, hadn’t crossed my mind. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  • This helped me learn how important each character is. Having details helps form a deeper understanding to each character. Because while knowing little things about each character you get attached to them.

  • This podcast helped me learn how I can use all of my characters and give them a purpose within my writing, and how each character works such as a Antagonist, or supporting/side characters. It also kind of helps me figure out how a story can move forward if I know my characters purpose.

  • This podcast especially helped me with figuring out what it is I want for a story. Conflict is one of my favorite things to come up with and discuss in a story, and this gave me some useful tips for that.

  • After reading this podcast since we were discussing the asylum story as a class, I really enjoyed the main source of this blog. Which consists of characters and giving the the characters a purpose, giving them meaning in the story. Whether they’re the protagonist or the antagonist, even a side character.

  • This podcast taught me how to develop protagonists and antagonists. How, at their essence, they are only a few questions that need to be answered for the characters to work in the novel. I particularly enjoyed the part on when to introduce a “problem”. That’s something that I struggle with personally.

  • This podcast helped me figure out what and where I want my stories with my characters to go. The protagonist and antagonist roles I especially have trouble with, but after listening and reading I learned useful tips, as J-ru said.

  • this blog is helping me create a good addition to the story we are doing in class. What you were going on about how ideas are like a seed and you need to know what to do to make it blossom into a good story. when i think about what my story is going to about i would get stuck at the beginning because i don’t know a good theme that would go good into a story. But, now that i read this blog i ask my self the what if question in order to find a good starting base for my story. i’ll now ask myself the what next question in order to find whats going to happen next,and not focus to much on building towards the ending that i have in mind. Now ill build the story up and say what am i building up to with what im writing down and focus on the next sentence rather than what is expected to happen. Thank you for this blog it helped me out a lot.

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