John Hartness is…well, I’m just going to say it…he’s a character. No, wait, I’m thinking CHARACTER should be in all caps, maybe even in bold. If you’ve ever met him in person or sat down with him for a drink, maybe for one of his Literate Liquors talks, you’ll know exactly what I mean. So I’m pleased to have him here talking about his “What If?” method of plotting. But before I let John run away with my blog – and he will – I want to note one more quick thing: New York Times bestseller Chloe Neill is running some awesome contests in celebration of Halloween and her upcoming Chicagoland Vampires novel HOUSE RULES that you might want to get in on. Check them out here.
And now, take it away, John.
“What If?” Questions and Plot/Character Development
Hey y’all, I’m John G. Hartness, author of the Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books and creator of the self-published super-series Bubba the Monster Hunter. Go buy my stuff, particularly the Black Knight Omnibus, which features three full-length novels in a revised, “author’s preferred” format with a badass cover. It’ll give you clear skin, clear up cellulite, lower taxes and take care of that embarrassing rash you haven’t told your doctor about.
Not really, but it might make you laugh.
I promise that’ll be the last (and most shameless) plug of the post, but I figured I’d go ahead and get it out of the way now. Lucienne asked me to join her “Men of Urban Fantasy” pinup calendar, so I figured I’d talk a little about how I build characters and plots.
You see, I’m a redneck. I grew up in a little bend in the road called Bullock Creek, SC. Don’t bother going to Google Maps for that one, because all you’ll figure out is that it’s an hour from Charlotte, and an hour and a half from Columbia, and close to a bunch of other stuff you’ve never heard of. As a redneck, we sit around a lot tellin’ stories.
We’ll sit on the front porch watching the heat lightning on an August afternoon, right about that dusky time of day when the first brave fireflies are flickering to life, and tell stories. We’ll sit on the tailgate of the pickup truck drinking cheap whiskey and Coke out of a Solo cup at the end of a long day of work watching the sun go down while the sweat finally dries on the back of our necks, and tell stories. We’ll sit on the banks of a little pond that might have three fish in the whole thing, smell of honeysuckle wafting through the air like Grandma’s Sunday dinner, and tell stories.
You get the picture? Well, all those stories start one of two ways. They either begin with “You ain’t gonna believe this shit!” Which means the story is 100% true. Or they begin with “What if?” Which means they might be as much as 20% true.
Well, that’s kinda where I get my plots and my characters from. They’re almost all “What if?” questions. With The Black Knight Chronicles, I started from the question of “What if there were a couple of uber-nerd vampires that were the good guys?” I had been reading some huge best-selling vampire books, and all the vampires were sexy. And they were all either badasses or tortured souls. So I wondered “what if the given circumstances were skewed, just a little?” What resulted was a series of books with funny characters that (I hope) make monsters more relatable to normal people.
With Bubba the Monster Hunter I thought “What if a psychotic cupid got loose in a nursing home?” Actually the first question was probably more like “what if the nursing home got Viagra mixed up with the blood pressure pills?” But you get the general idea.
“What if” questions are fun. They open you up to some wild flights of fancy, and can send you down some plotline rabbit holes if you’re not careful. That’s one reason why I’m a plotter, not a pantser. If I were a writer who could just “wing it” through the plot of my books, my love for “what if” questions could send me off on tangents that I might never recover from. So I have to exercise discipline in my exploration. I only allow myself to think about “what if”s when I’m beginning the book, working on the outline, or when I get stuck.
And that last bit is where “what if” questions can be really helpful, because if you’ve trained yourself to do a certain amount of brainstorming already, kicking into that mode when you’re stuck is a lot easier. And you’ve probably got a ton of crazy ideas all rolling around in your head just looking for a chance to get out, since you’ve been suppressing them since the outline!
So there’s a little tip from me on where I get plot and character ideas. I ask myself “What if?” And whenever I think of something else crazy I want to try, I ask myself “Why not?” It’s all worked out pretty well so far! See y’all in the funny papers!
John G. Hartness is a writer, actor, teacher, lighting designer, theatre consultant, raconteur, knight-errant, Panthers fan and drunkard from Charlotte, NC. Part of the Magical Words blogging team, he can also be found online at www.johnhartness.com or @johnhartness on Twitter. He finds himself far too amusing for his own good.