Like the chicken and the egg, the basic question of writing is: Which comes first; characters or ideas?
In my case, it's generally ideas. Classic students of writing may not approve (My sister never did.) But, speaking as an author of the otherworldly and paranormal: tough. Ideas are what motivate me to write. I can't speak for other writers of the genre, but the germ of a story begins for me with the germ of an idea. An idea for a concept, a world, a possibility.
With "Black Goddess," it began with a scientific concept, as many of my ideas do. The idea, which I'd happened across in a Scientific American article was that all the matter that composes our world, from the planet itself to that annoying hang-nail in your thumb was formed in the cores of exploding suns billions of years ago and has had a very long journey. I thought...if all the atoms that compose us could just be shifted back in time...all those exotic cosmic events of eons past could become part of us again.
And, there it was: A way to link the everyday and the mundane with the celestial; a favorite theme of mine. Now, how should that manifest; in what kind of characters interacting in what way? When the idea first came to me, I had in mind nothing more than a short story. I thought...a young man pursuing a love relationship and finding a past billions of years long. Everybody enters a relationship with a past, right? Classic theme. I thought I'd give the story the title "Baggage."
But, in the course of actually designing the characters around that central theme, of actually getting to know them, starting from their core motivations and building from there, I got pulled into areas that just couldn't be dealt with so easily.
I don't know...maybe some characters are conceived fully formed in the minds of their creators, but my characters sometimes come to life during development in ways I didn't expect. In setting up the physical reasons why this situation came about, I first had to do some physics research and came up with an experiment to facilitate the central idea. Then, I had to design a character who had a compelling reason to want to travel back in time. I also had to design a physicist with her own motive for sending him there. The core motivations for the protagonists had to be dark, and I wanted to make them personal as well as connected with much larger and timeless themes of primal evil and the obsession to understand it.
Here, I had to research something other than physics: torture. Its causes, its victims. The effects it has on people, and how therapists try to deal with it and why. As a political volunteer, I'd thought about these issues before, but now I had to study them in more psychological depth. Again, I had to create characters to explore these themes, and although the misguided therapists of the story were functionaries more than actors, I had to make them come alive; I had to make them flesh and blood and real enough for the reader (and me) to believe in. It becomes random sometimes, all these tangential threads, but in addition to being an enjoyably unpredictable journey, it's also a challenge to tie all these threads together in making the story work.
All the characters, both central and supporting, have their own inner demons to combat, and their own ways of coping. The two central characters, the young lovers of the piece, were the key to it all; the nexus that ties all the other characters together.
Joshua Sinclair, the protagonist, is completely lost. His life has been torn apart by a senseless chain reaction of tragedy that has destroyed his faith and left him with no purpose in life but to answer the eternal question 'why' or die trying. The young woman he loves, Lark Jeffries is the stable character, the rock that may become Joshua's salvation, if he's not too far gone for her to save. Being the most stable character, Lark is of course in danger of becoming the most boring. I tried to bring her to life in the most direct way possible. I gave her a past, a primal drive (love), enough hope to keep her course true and enough insecurity to make her journey difficult and interesting. She's found a way through the darkness by daring to face and overcome it with unconditional love; something none of the people around her, least of all Joshua have learned to do yet.
The developing relationship between Lark and Joshua touches on the heart of existence itself; is there a higher purpose in life, or are we just raw matter that arrogantly believes it has a soul? Here, I had to research eastern religions, and take a crash course in the Karmic cycle of death and rebirth, in order to explore the central theme of surviving evil, loss and despair. I've always liked the parallel between the Buddhist concept of Karma and cosmological physics with its vision of the oscillating universe, and the recycling of cosmic matter. The question of whether one sees the process with hope or despair was expressed through the characters.
My research into eastern religions took me to the Hindu goddess Kali. I'd heard of Her before, and She was the ideal embodiment of the theme I was pursuing; Goddess of Death, but also of Life and new beginnings. She ended up becoming, in a sense, the title character of the story. And so, I changed the title to "Black Goddess."
So yes, my characters are born of ideas, but I have to sketch out each character before I can begin; to justify every action and reaction by knowing what drives them to do what they do. The story is basically about taking the ultimate leap of faith. I feel like that's what I'm doing when I follow the germ of a thought, not always knowing where it will lead. Whatever characters that road puts in your path, you just have to make sure you do right by them