Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who, when, where, what and why?

It occurred to me that answered these five W words can give you the basis of a new story.

Obviously your story has to have characters. Who they are may depend, of course, on when and where you decide to set your story (more of that later). I’ve seen advice about creating complete character sketches before you start, but I fully admit I’ve never done this. I tend to start with their names and occupations, and I usually have a picture in my mind of their appearance too. I think they decide themselves whether they have dark or fair hair, brown, blue or green eyes! As I get to know them during my first draft, I find they reveal things about their idiosyncrasies, characters and backgrounds, sometimes totally unexpected.

‘Who’ can also include your secondary characters. I usually have some ideas about these, although I have known others to invent themselves. My Elvis-singing Nile boatman is an example of this. When he ‘appeared’, I must admit my first thought was ‘Where on earth did he come from?’ But in fact he later played quite an important part in the story, one I could not have imagined when I first thought about this particular story.

In my case, this is present day, since I write contemporary romances. As history is my ‘speciality’ and I was a history teacher for umpty-ump years, people often ask me why I don’t write historical novels. Maybe it’s simply because, being an historian, I would need every fact in my story to be 100% accurate. I know just how much research I would have to do to achieve that, particularly research about the fashions and customs of a particular era. I admire the writers who do this well, but I just don’t have the inclination (or patience!) to do all that would be necessary.

Of course, stories can be set at any time in the past or in the future. There are no limits although, admittedly, some periods of history are more popular with readers (and writers) than others. Regency, of course, is one of these (thank you, Jane Austen!) and another seems to be 19th century American ‘Wild West’.

The ‘when’, of course, can influence the ‘who’ in your story, especially regarding their occupations (or lack of), the social sphere in which they live and their general attitudes and expectations.


Again, there are no limits. A story can be set anywhere in the world or, in the case of paranormal, fantasy or future stories, in any other world.

I prefer to set my stories in areas or places with which I’m familiar, although I did take one character to Iceland which I’ve never visited. On the whole, however, I find I’m more comfortable with places I know, or at least have been to, even if only for a short time.

Another aspect of ‘where’ is the specific place where you characters live or are staying during your story. A five star hotel, a small cottage, a city apartment? The possibilities are endless and can, of course, contribute to the story as a whole, rather than simply act as a place where the character does her laundry and washes her hair.

‘Where’ can also include where your characters actually work, where they first meet, where they go together (or separately) and where they are at the end of the story.


There are two angles to this question.

The first is ‘What is the problem?’ If they simply meet, fall in love and marry, you might have a romance, but you don’t have a romance novel! The life-blood of a romance novel is one or more issues that have to be solved by one or both of your characters. It has to have some obstacles, either internal or external or both. So one of the first things you have to decide is just what these obstacles are.

The second angle is an extension of the first i.e. ‘What if …?’ When you start asking yourself this question, you’ve started to develop your story. What if her grandmother leaves her a million pound fortune? What if she loses her job? What if his ex-fiancee appears on the scene? What if someone tells him a deliberate lie about the heroine? I find the ‘what ifs’ are the most interesting part of building up a story. You can let your imagination run wild. Some ideas you’ll dismiss, others may take you down a different path than the one you’d imagined.

Try this: roll a dice for each of the categories below, and write down your results:

Who? (roll twice to get 2 occupations i.e. 1st roll for hero, 2nd roll for heroine):
1. Hairdresser   2. Journalist   3. Hotel owner   4. Archaeologist   5. Singer   6. Animal vet

Who? (secondary character)
1. Sister   2. Photographer   3. Police officer   4. Grandmother   5. Farmer   6. Pharmacist

1.Present day   2. In 3012   3. Second World War   4. American Civil War   5. Early 20th  century   6. 1960’s

1. Large city   2. Small town   3. Beach area   4. Mountain area   5. Cruise ship   6. Ski resort

What's the problem?
1. Health   2. Small child   3. Ambition   4. Mistaken identity   5. Family feud   6. Broken promise.

What did you come up with? Have your who, when, where and what results sparked an idea in your mind? Can you already think of a ‘what if?’ resulting from this?

If so, the 5th W is Why? Why not start writing your story?

By the way, my results were:
Hero’s a singer, heroine’s an animal vet, a secondary character is a grandmother, it’s set in the 2nd World War in a mountain area, and the problem is a family feud. Hmm, my mind is already working on the what ifs!


  1. Interesting method, Paula. I seem to start with the what-if, then fit the characters and the where-when to the premise. The secondary characters come as needed to help-hinder the main characters.

  2. Like Kipling's Six Honest Serving Men! This is a post to keep - I like the dice game but need to find a die! I usually start with the 'who'.

  3. Seems like it all depends on whether you are plot-driven or character-driven. I think I tend to start with the who and what's the problem, followed by when and where. The what ifs then pile up after that!

  4. Hi Paula, I'm like you in that I start with the who and the what's the problem. Then I build from there. I love the dice idea, though. A great way to jump start a story!

  5. A great list to work out a novel. I am going to use your method should I become stuck. I have jotted them down for future reference.

  6. I knew we thought alike, Jen!

    Glynis, thanks for visiting, and do let me know if you write a story based on the dice method.

    BTW, you can make your own random lists for this method. I chose the ones in the blog-post from the blurbs of some books in a couple of writing magazines!

  7. I love the role of the dice method!

    And I do so love when secondary characters pop into the story and then take on an important role.

  8. Can't claim it's an original idea, Debra, as I adapted it from a regular feature in one of my writing magazines.
    And yes, I agree with you about the secondary characters who suddenly appear and then end up with an important role in either supporting or causing problems between the hero and heroine.

  9. Okay, I'll start over. The phone rang, and it was a great niece whose son is here in town at the university and he totaled his truck. Well...that took my mind and focues completely in another direction.
    HOWEVER!!! I do like this post, especially about POV. It still bothers me that we--you and I--must cater to the rules, while other big names--Nora--can break them all over the place and no one notice.
    Also, about our characters. I, too, have never understood how authors can draw up character sketches before she writes. Like you and many other, we must wait to learn the character of our made up people. They will let us know. Some of us understand that...others do not.
    Good, Paula. Very good.

  10. I couldn't possibly draw up a character. I've only done that for dungeons and dragons. And how right you are about historical research. As a fellow historian, I've been there. I also have just written about a country I've never visited (although I've read a lot about it) and as soon as I've polished the book to my satisfaction I'm going to ask on Twitter whether anyone who knows about Hindu culture can give it the onceover!