Tara Gilboy On Knowing What Your Characters Want... And Why

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Tara Gilboy. Tara holds a master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she specialized in writing for children and young adults. She teaches creative writing for San Diego Continuing Education and lives in southern California with her husband, daughter, and dog, Biscuit. Unwritten is her first novel.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I actually have a couple origin points for this novel. I had written a different book for my MFA thesis, and I found an agent for it pretty quickly, so I really had my hopes up when it went out on submission, and then …. Nothing. It didn’t sell. This shook my confidence as a writer, and I was starting and stopping a lot of projects and feeling insecure about my writing. Finally I decided to write something just for fun, something that was just for me, that I never planned on showing anyone, as a way to make writing fun for myself again. Unwritten was my “just for fun” project.

At the same time, I kept having this recurring nightmare where some sort of supernatural entity was coming after me, and I had to pack up whatever I could fit into my car and run away forever. That dream was initially my starting point in the story; in the early drafts, the story opened with a stranger arriving in the middle of the night and telling Gracie and her mother that they have to flee. I think my original opening line was “The pounding shook the house,” as this stranger knocks on the door.

Later, as I continued working on the novel, I realized that in order for readers to feel invested in that moment, they needed to know more about Gracie first, so the scene got pushed back into what I think is now chapter four or five, and it eventually evolved into something completely different. But the origin of this story was me exploring who Gracie was running from and why, as well as giving myself permission to play around with these ideas without pressuring myself to write something with the end goal of publication in mind.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Through A LOT of trial and error. I wrote the first draft of Unwritten in one year, and I spent two years revising it. I am not an outliner (at least not for my first draft), so I must have written hundreds of pages that I ultimately threw away. (I recently found some handwritten pages of a draft that I had forgotten I wrote!) I took some novel workshops with Sarah Aronson, who is an amazing teacher, and she really helped me streamline the plot, as did my writing buddy Jill, and my workshop group, the RCC, who I have been workshopping weekly with ever since we did our MFAs together at UBC.

One thing I learned as I was revising my plot structure was that when I begin to get off track, I need to return to my character’s basic goals and needs. What does my character WANT by the end of this book? What does my character NEED (internally) by the end of this book? If a plot point is not related to either of these two things, it’s likely it needs some tweaking or can be cut from the novel.

In early drafts, Gracie did not know from the beginning that she is a fairy tale character; she found out midway through the book. In that version, the story wasn’t strong enough to sustain the novel because she didn’t have strong desires and emotional wounds: things just kind of “happened” to her. In my final version, Gracie’s internal and external struggle is ALL about being a fairy tale character: it’s what drives the entire plot.

I’m also kind of addicted to reading craft books, so once I had written my first draft, I did a lot of outlining and shaping of the story using principles in books like Robert McKee’s Story, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (I saw her speak at an SCBWI conference, and it completely changed the way I approached my revision). I also did a lot of revising to make sure I had hit all the major plot points: inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

I don’t outline my first draft, so I don’t have a plot in place when I begin. The few times I’ve tried to outline a first draft, I kept trying to force my characters to do things that didn’t feel natural to them, and it led me to ultimately abandon the project. For me, I get to know my characters, my story, and my plot through the process of writing, of watching my characters in action, seeing how they act and react, and finding out what is important to them. Certainly my plot changes as I revise, but I expect that since I never have one firmly in place to begin with. I wish I were able to have a plot in mind before I begin. I have a feeling I would save a lot of time (and wasted pages!).

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Story ideas come to me all the time – the hard part is choosing which ideas have the “legs” to be turned into fully-developed stories. And “legs” might not even be the right way to characterize it. What does not have legs for me might turn into a wonderful story for another writer if they see potential where I did not.

I keep a small notebook in my purse so that I can jot down ideas as they come to me. It’s amazing how surrounded we are by stories all the time. I recently started teaching a class called “Rediscover San Diego” for San Diego Continuing Education, and it’s become part of my job to go to different venues in the city and talk to people there, finding out more about the work they do. I have gotten to meet so many fascinating people: a man who opened a camel dairy (it’s a thing!), a teacher who created his own museum devoted to African history because he was frustrated so little of it was being taught in schools (his collection is amazing!), a husband and wife team who were given a recipe by a master French caramel maker and then traveled all over the French countryside studying caramel-making…. I think I collected a lifetime’s worth of story ideas from last semester alone.

I think as writers we tend to spend a lot of time alone, with our books and our laptops, but it’s so important to get out into the world and really be present in the moment and pay attention to the places and people around us. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way talks about going on “artist dates” with ourselves, and I think that’s wonderful advice to help fill the creative well.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

This is always a tough thing for me, but I think I’ve gotten better at choosing over the years. I start and abandon stories all the time, usually about thirty pages or so into a project. I always do some freewriting and rough drafting when I have a story idea, playing around with different directions I might take it. I think for me, the determining factor of whether this kind of “playing around” is a project I will stick with is related to character goals.

I have spent SO much time over the years working on projects that went nowhere because my protagonist did not have:

  • 1) A tangible goal (with real stakes) for her to pursue over the course of the novel and

  • 2) some sort of emotional wound, something that she needed to resolve for herself by the end of the novel.

I need to know what my protagonist wants so desperately and why, and if I don’t have at least a sense of this by the time I’ve done some of this freewriting and rough drafting, then I usually decide that my idea is not strong enough to sustain an entire novel. At least those are the problems I have run into in the past. I’ve wasted a lot of time working on story ideas that I ultimately abandoned because in the end, I didn’t know what my protagonist wanted and why, and so the foundation of my idea was not strong enough to sustain a novel.

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I do have a writing buddy! Her name is Biscuit, and she is my little ten-pound Yorkie/Maltese mix. You used the word “or” when you asked if I found it distracting, and I would say “and” is more appropriate for me because she is my writing buddy, AND I find her distracting, but I don’t have much of a choice in the matter because she climbs into my lap every time I sit down to write.

Actually, though I don’t find her as distracting as I used to. I’ve gotten good at balancing both Biscuit and a notebook on my lap. When she was a puppy, that was another story…..