Ah, kids. They say the craziest things. They also tell the most interesting, compelling stories that make absolutely no sense at all. Or at least, I did when I was a kid. I have a box in my basement that’s just full of weird stories I wrote when I was younger—a kingdom of cats with wings, ballerina superheroes saving the day, talking flowers fighting the evil weeds…and so on. A lot of them seem to focus on superheroes and good vs. evil, perhaps influenced by my frequent borrowing of my dad’s vintage comic book collection as a kid.
One of the things in the box was a purple five-subject notebook with words in blue pen scrawled across the cover: “My Superhero Book.” It’s filled with page after page of poorly-drawn superheroes and villains, some creative (like The Shadow, who could–wait for it–create illusions), some downright strange or pretty useless (like SixStars, whose sister was a star, and that was the only thing I’d written about her). I’d colored them in colored pencil and listed their aliases, superpowers, age, etc., in my childish handwriting.
When I unearthed the book in high school, next to the elbowless, giant-lipped characters that dominated the pages, I found pen drawings of the same characters, added when I was ten or eleven. Clearly, I’d still been thinking about these characters, enough to re-design them in my anime-influenced art style (which now included elbows). Leafing through these drawings inspired me to redraw them again, and, as at this point I’d begun to actually call myself a writer, I started thinking about backstories for these characters, and how they could fit into a story.
Children have unrestrained creativity. Their imaginations haven’t yet been shot down by the mundanity of the world, as adults’ have. Not to say that adults aren’t imaginative, but we don’t–or at least, I don’t–have the ability to just pick up a coffee cup and make it become a boat. Our internal critics have already been activated. We find ourselves needing to think about plot points and plot holes and story structure, whereas if you watch a kid play on any average day, they’ll just keep going, no matter how little sense their story makes. I had my dad film me playing a couple of times, and this concept is really apparent in the strange and nonsensical plotlines I came up with. One of them involved evil guitar stands (wearing tiaras and capes, no less) trying to kidnap my Barbies, and another had my Barbies and my My Little Ponies going to war, which of course ended in a terrible song about making friends. They just didn’t make any sense, but I made them all up on the spot, something I don’t think I could do now.
So the characters in my Superhero Book, though very poorly drawn and without any sort of backstories and sometimes even without superpowers or abilities, served as a creative starting point for my high school self. Here were a bunch of pre-existing characters that I could change and mold as I pleased, and I even vaguely remembered what some of their stories were supposed to be because, after all, I created them. It was even better than any of the writing prompts I’d found online. I began to doodle some of these characters, scrawling rough backstories, personalities, likes/dislikes, etc., on a lined notebook page opposite my math homework, and eventually, they started to fit together into a story. Time Girl, who (according to my Superhero Book) wears purple and yellow and can manipulate time, became Leila Wallace, a teenager who has recently discovered by accident her ability to freeze time. She wears thick glasses and likes fashion, antique clocks, and hair bows. Trixie Belle, who according to the book wears yellow and magenta and is an acrobat and martial artist, became Isabella Mallory, a rather excitable teenager who has the unfortunate ability to attract bad luck. She has learned, however, to use this power to her advantage, and becomes Leila’s roommate at a newly-opened school for superheroes, the premise of our story. Sound cliché? It probably is. But they also inspired a whole new set of characters for a brand new story involving superheroes that I’m still working on now.
Really, it’s about inspiration. As an adult, I often feel very uninspired in my writing, and turn to online writing prompts or intense brainstorming sessions which usually end up getting me nowhere. But as a kid, there were stories just flowing out of my head–even if they didn’t make sense. Using the bones of that creativity as a starting point, I find that it’s easier to adapt them and expand on them than it is to create a whole new concept from scratch. It’s like store-bought cake mix. You just need to add in some eggs, oil, and water, and you’ll have a story. And not only do you have bones, you have nostalgia. When I was eight, my friends and I wrote a screenplay, and we had my dad film us acting it out. We kept writing sequels to the story every year and getting together to film them until our busy lives forced us to end it in middle school. But I kept looking back at the videos because to me, they were nostalgia. Especially after I moved out of my childhood home, that project represented a time in my life that I missed. So, I eventually was inspired to re-write it, because I loved it enough that I wanted to make it better. In the vein of my superheroes, I fleshed out the characters and made the plot actually make sense, while attempting to retain some of the plot points I liked and the childish humor my friends and I had infused into the original. I felt like the humor made it unique.
Sometimes, if you read enough books of one genre, you start to feel like everything is cliché, like there are no new plots anymore. Even the ideas you come up with start to feel cliché. But maybe the things you came up with as a kid were different. You hadn’t been exposed to as much literature then, and though you might have been influenced by something, like me with my dad’s comic books, the plots might be more unique. Maybe that story about flying cats you wrote in fourth grade might seem silly, but maybe you could turn it into a children’s book–I bet no one’s written it yet. Maybe your metaphorical cake will turn out better if you use cake mix. After all, somebody else has already started baking it for you–your past self.
– Jillian Wright