This is another of those topics that comes up with horrifying frequency when published writers go out in public (or open their email). The (often dreaded) question “where do you get your ideas?” And related things, like “where do you get your characters?” Or my personal favorite (cribbed from an interview with Charlaine Harris) “where do you get all those marvelous penises?”
I have said this before–in public even–and I’ll say it again here, just to be clear: Ideas are as easy as street-corner whores. The tricky bit is figuring out which one you can take home without getting a disease (or rolled.)
You see, ideas are all over and most people have them all the time. But no one is terribly interested in a book about why light bulbs make that ringing sound just before they blow out, or doing the dishes by hanging from a chandelier in a swimming pool–at least most people aren’t unless the writer’s name is Chuck Palahniuk or Mark Henry. I often wonder if washing machine repair men might not be secretly stealing my socks, or if possibly the socks are going to an alternate dimension where they join together to become one sentient, massive sock-monster and return to the world of ordinary laundry masquerading as washer repairmen in order to wreak havoc and liberate their knitted kin. (Now be honest: you wonder about those socks too.) But it’s probably not a Nebula-award winning idea. (Since they don’t actually award a Nebula just for ideas, that’s right out, anyhow.)
While some ideas just don’t gel into stories, it’s really more about what you do with the idea than the idea itself. Gathering ideas is simple: read the paper, watch TV, look at the world and think “…what if…” or “…why is…” or “how could you…” It actually is that easy.
Characters are a little tougher, but not much. For a character to be compelling, they must be complex and project a sense of the real. Borrow people you know or see on the street. Use what you can observe about how people interact and think and do what they do. Apply logic to the result of action and thought and be consistent, even if you don’t show every link of their thought/action chain. Take a character type you are familiar with from other stories or real places and apply the “what if” again: what if they were different in a certain way; what if they were stuck in a certain situation….? Truly original characters are as rare as truly original plots, not because they are difficult, but because we are human and we have a great deal of variation; whatever you can think of, has probably existed in real life or a near analog.
As a writer, you don’t have to be ground-breaking and original all the time. It might even be better if you weren’t. When you throw too much “new” and “different” at readers, you leave them no stable reference and that makes it harder for readers to understand and engage with your story. It’s all right to borrow archetypes and “standard plots” because the real gift and challenge of writing is in the way you go about the storytelling.
Ideas don’t really come from warehouses in upstate New York, or from guys in alleys wearing trench coats. They come from everywhere, in funny packages, and they wear the label “life.” Grab some. It’s OK.