Yesterday, I talked about my mantra for inspiration and writing: in order to write real life fiction, one has to live a real life.
Today, I’m going to flip that completely. I’ve been trying for years to write a full-on urban fantasy paranormal story. There’s reality in it, but there’s fantastical elements too. Things that do not actually exist in reality. In this case, it’s shifters. And werewolves. Otherwise, the setting is “normal.” In fact, I’ve chosen to set a town just outside The Everglades, here in Florida.
The partner of my main character is a normal human woman, with a child. So there’s the parts of my life that I can easily pluck from to gather bits of inspiration for various scenes and conflicts: married/dating life, raising a child, addressing home/work life balance issues. Easy enough. I could just have a story about them raising that kid together. But that’s rather “normal.” The genre’s readers do not expect, nor want, normal.
Now the dilemma. The main character is a shifter. She has the ability to transform into an animal, to run on four legs, to “speak” in barks and whines. How do I find the “real” to be able to write that? It’s not part of my experience. In order to write it, or get readers to relate to it, what can I draw inspiration from? I certainly can’t interview a cat, like I could an EMT for scenes in Turn for Home.
You might think the first, best, and only answer is: go read other paranormal shifter books or watch movies that have that and do what they do.
But that’s not original. That’s derivative. Just like writing fanfiction used to be. Playing around in somebody else’s “sandbox” is not my thing anymore.
Do I want to know what others have written? Yes. But I don’t want to get their world-building, their lore, their science, their tech, whatever, so ingrained in my head that I start using them? No. That turns my stomach to even think about.
But should I read and dissect what they’ve done? Ask why and how so it can lead to my own world-building? Yes. Do they have an explanation for how their shifters came to be? A lore? A community? What rules do those communities have for the members? How strictly are they adhered to? What consequences are there?
The best stories answer those questions throughout the story. The central conflict and all the subplots bring out these details because there’s conflict in them.
Therefore, for my own stories, I have to build my own world that answers all those questions, too. And anything I note that a story did poorly in my estimation? Well, then I have to come up with a more air-tight answer, a better and more complete world-build than that author did.
Focus on character emotion
Nearly every paranormal story has the paranormal characters intersect with the “normal” ones. So having her partnered with a normal woman is a good first step.
And to write that there are some things, emotional things, I can grasp onto to start world-building. These include feelings of being different, being out of step with people around you. Those emotional angles are, in fact, what drew me to the story. I want to be able to show the struggles of “other” participating in the a mainstream culture. Personally I know I struggle with that. I’m an introvert in a decidedly extroverted world. I’m Jewish, when a lot of the culture around me is Christian. I’m a democrat in a state that is decidedly Republican.
I’ve bitten my tongue, and stuck my foot in my mouth. I’ve left jobs that demanded things I could not give. Not even able to fake it for a little while. I’ve also chosen other paths just to avoid confrontation. I’ve also blown up and confronted stuff when I’d finally had enough.
Plenty of material. Emotionally.
What about the physical character?
There’s also a physical side to a character. Particularly a shifter. As I’ve been learning in my graduate communications classes, there’s verbal and non-verbal cultural language. There’s behaviors, rituals, routines, and even perspectives that people have simply because of how we were raised and the communities we are born members of, or join knowingly, as we grow. It displays biases, or hierarchical outlooks, or heteronormative beliefs. It’s completely unconscious, unless you make yourself pay attention to it and consciously work to change it.
So, for my story, my what-ifs and world-building have to think about that. What’s living in Coula culture like? I know she prefers being in human form (it’s the conflict with her father). So what’s her problem with shifting? What is it like being in her animal form? What event(s) shifted her perspective on this? If her human-only choice hasn’t been easy (there’s events there), why is it still what she’d choose to be for as long as she’s able? What are the physical side effects to staying human “too long”?
If I focus on emotional and physical character, and build my world from that, even though my story will have the label “urban fantasy paranormal,” it will not be anything like any other book.
Now, THAT is inspiring!