When I mention my writing to someone new, the most common response is something like, “I’ve always wanted to write a book” or “I have an idea for a book, but I don’t know where to start.”

I’m presenting a novel-writing workshop in Billings this coming Saturday that’s geared toward the aspiring writer–the person who has an idea, but just hasn’t figured out how to start. I wonder how many terrific stories are locked in someone’s mind simply because they don’t know how to get going.

The best way to start, of course, is to sit down and start typing. My books always start with a voice–a character talking in my head. From that voice, I get my all-important main character.

Characters are what matter most in ficiton. When you think back on novels you love, it’s the characters you remember. From Elizabeth Bennett to Conan the Barbarian, compelling characters make compelling books.

But what makes a character compelling?

First of all, your character needs to have strength. Not Conan the Barbarian strength–your character can be a total wimp physically–but inner strength. Strength of purpose.

Second, your character needs to use that strength to strive for something. Something important. Not an ethereal, abstract thing like “happiness” or “justice,” but something concrete, like “reconciling with his mother” or “putting that bastard who fleeced his grandma in jail.”

Third, and most important, your character needs to have flaws and quirks. Flaws that give him room to grow, and quirks that make him memorable and likable.

If you want a strong plot, make sure your character’s flaws are what keep him from getting what he needs. For instance, a Regency heroine might want a good marriage, but she’s outspoken and rebellious–qualities that make men shy away from her. Your strong, silent hero might want to marry the spunky reporter, but she’s a gadfly and he’s antisocial. Both the Regency lady and the hero will need to use their inner strength to conquer their flaws and reach their goal.

But a book about a woman trying to land a husband doesn’t sound all that compelling, does it? And a novel about a man trying to learn the art of small talk hardly sounds like a bestseller. That’s because these inner, personal conflicts are only the foundation of the book. Layered on top of this foundation is an external plot that provides action.

The external plot should somehow mirror the internal one; not only does your Regency heroine need to be more circumspect in her speech to win the hero; she also needs to conform to social norms so she can infiltrate high society and get revenge on the man who ruined her sister. Not only does your hero have to become more gregarious to win the reporter’s heart; he also has to go to discos and gay bars to find out who’s sending anonymous messages threatening to kill her.

If this all seems complicated, don’t worry. Plot structure is very left-brained and analytical. If I started with all this intricate planning, I’m not sure my books would have much life in them. That’s why I start by opening my mind, accessing the character who’s angling for attention, and free-write whatever comes to mind. Somehow, what I write usually offers hints that tell me what that character needs, why he needs it, and what’s keeping him from getting it.

Only then do I sit down and do the planning and plotting. Working this way gives equal time to both sides of my brain–the creative right side, and the analytical left. And when I mesh the talents of the two, the book is off and running.