Illustration of Man in the Street with Falling Leaves

Following Your Character Down the Rabbit Hole

Chad Koch

Conrad, my main character in "Equinox", barely existed in the first drafts of this story. He was supposed to be a teenager dealing with his dad going off the deep end, but instead he was somewhat shy, somewhat hesitant, somewhat sad and confused. He was barely a side character. I tried pushing him into an ending–forcing him to blow up on his dad—but that ending didn't make any sense at all. I didn't see Conrad making that decision–and worse, because he was only “sort of” sad and confused, I didn't really see him making any real decisions at all.

I was caught in the black hole of revising without progress. I changed endings, added plot devices, removed plot devices, and rearranged paragraphs. I added single lines of dialogue. I erased other lines of dialogue. I changed the setting from mostly Conrad’s home to mostly Conrad’s school. None of these decisions did anything except create hours of work, a countless number of interchangeable drafts, and, of course, still left me with a character that wasn't able to take any action I wanted him to.

Errata_Carmona_for blog of chad

Let me step back and say that as a kid, I was pretty nerdy. I don’t mean book smart nerdy or honors program nerdy, but video games nerdy, playing Dungeons and Dragons nerdy.  I loved running table-top role-playing games as the “dungeon master.” I’d make up dramatic stories where one of the people in the party would be afflicted with an illness that could only be cured from a potion held by a dangerous goblin. I’d relish having my friends see the game turn upside down as I revealed to them that the world in which they were slaying dragons was actually not a world at all, but the dreams of an insane wizard!

I didn't need to think about characters and their motivations when running these games. The players automatically played “heroes”–the kinds of people you’d expect to be slaying dragons. And obviously it didn't cross anyone’s mind that the “it’s just a dream” trick came out of nowhere because in the world these heroes belonged, people ate magic and miracles for breakfast.

I learned a lot about plot and setting from all this gaming but understood very little about character. And so, when I started writing, I knew the trajectory of the story–I knew the very last scene—before I even wrote a single word. This was great–at least in the first draft. I could pound out the five or six scenes and get to the dramatic conclusion no problem. However, looking at it a few days later, the writing would feel stiff, stale, and overly directed. The ending didn’t really match anything the characters were up to. There was a plot with an ending, but the characters could never realistically achieve or earn that ending.

Back to Conrad . . .  At the time, actually, I don’t think I even considered the character “Conrad.” I thought of him as a vehicle for my plot. People who read early drafts told me something about the character seemed off. Perhaps they meant flat? They sometimes thought of him as crazy. He acts completely differently than he thinks. He’s not insane, I’d say to myself, he’s just boring.

I hate free writing. I want to be in control. But after enough revolving, unchanging drafts, I got a suggestion to write “off the page.” I was told to follow my character. It was something I’d probably heard before but simply ignored. I’d never considered not writing a character within the context of a story, so I thought it was a waste of time. I approached it cautiously. What does a character do when exciting and dramatic things aren’t happening around them? Well, Conrad went to the park, he rode his bike around the high school, and he nearly put me to sleep with my own writing. It meandered. There were a couple pages of him eating apples and watching TV. I was bored with it and ready to give up.

Boris_Semeniako-big-31 blog for chadBut then something appeared out of nowhere. I can’t point to anything in particular other than the boredom in my head gave way to mischievousness. I suddenly wanted Conrad to break the law. Nothing major. He was going to shop lift, like everyone does as a teenager. It started at a gas station, but then, and I have no idea why, I had him in a Walgreens. But why? Was he going to steal pain medicine to make crystal meth like on Breaking Bad?Just what was in a Walgreens?

In the story, one of the things Conrad grapples with is his coming to terms with being gay. I had trouble inhabiting the experience of a teenager in that situation now that I’m an adult and a lot of the awkwardness has thankfully been forgotten. So I found myself walking around a Walgreens near my house. I was a little embarrassed and felt crazy for doing this on behalf of my character. I was ready to buy a soda and leave, but then I walked past the pharmacy.

Next to the counter for prescription orders was a shelf of condoms. A lot of condoms; of all types and styles. Wouldn’t this be exciting for any fourteen-year-old boy to see? Maybe. But I didn’t really see that as interesting for Conrad. He wasn’t really at the stage where he’d want to use one or even think about that possibility. Which was a weird thought for me to have–this question about what Conrad might be interested in was something I hadn’t considered until I started writing away from the plot.

I turned the corner and the shelf extended farther. It had other prophylactics, but at the very end there was an entire section devoted to personal lubricants. There were tingly ones, self-heating ones, some that had a flavor of strawberries, and others that smelled like coconuts. That’s when a bell went off in my head, as if Conrad himself was telling me: that’s it! And then everything made sense.  Wouldn’t these be the things a boy that age would be curious about?  Wouldn’t he secretly want that instead? As some way of trying to uncover what real sex might feel like? I followed Conrad’s lead and suddenly everything about the story opened up. His curiosity about boys in gym class, his wonderment of the older boy Daniel, his desire for love—all of it came to life. Conrad started to have a direction. The ending of the story completely changed. The largest struggle became cutting back on Conrad’s thoughts and feelings. He suddenly made sense to me.

From then on, I’ve started following my characters as part of my first drafts. I’ll end up with several two-page rabbit holes in laundry mats trying to steal a candy bar out of a vending machine, hiding under the bed to avoid church, or hacking into a significant other’s email account to see if they’ve said anything good or bad. Somehow the characters rise from these nooks and crannies of non-stories. They become people, and the stories themselves become clear.

Chad Koch’s first published story received Transfer Magazine’s Leo Litwak Fiction Award. He was the 2012/2013 Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review co-Editor-in-Chief, and the 2010 recipient of the Miriam Ylvisakar Fellowship. He recently received his MFA from San Francisco State University. "Equinox" is his third story to be published, and it was published in issue 300.1, Winter of 2015.

Top illustration accompanies the story "Equinox" in issue 300.1, Winter 2015. Catherine Byun, a freelance illustrator based in San Francisco. She spends her time drawing, watching movies, and hiking around California. Her work appears in the North American Review’s Winter 2014 and Winter 2015 issue.

Middle illustration by Errata Carmona, a freelance artist who focuses on graphic design and illustrations for magazines, book covers, children's books, branding, posters, logos, etc.

Bottom illustration by Boris Séméniako, a freelance illustrator since 1999. His images have been published in major french newspapers and magazines, such as Le Monde, L'Express, L'Humanité, Le Monde diplomatique, and Les Echos.

Both artists and their portfolios can be found on