02 Feb

Where Do Characters Come From?

Posted in Character, Craft, DIY MFA, Writing

Some people collect stamps or seashells.  Some collect bottle caps or baseball cards.  Some even collect parking tickets.  I collect characters.  I squash them between the pages of my notebook, the way you might press flowers (or faeries).  I’ll let you in on some of the secret sources I turn to when I need to boost my stash.

In Real Life:  Basing characters on real people has some major advantages.  For starters, you’ll be able to observe an actual person (or if the real life person is dead, you’ll most likely be able to rely on primary source material).  Not only that, if you’re ever wondering what your character would think or do about something, you can just ask.  That said, there are two drawbacks you’ll need to consider if you decide to base a character on someone from real life:

  1. You could get sued.  You can avoid this problem by doing one of three things.  A) Avoid saying anything that could get you into trouble, which could lead to a very boring story.  B) Change enough of the details so that it’s no longer obvious that you’ve based the character on a specific person.  C) Base the character on someone who can’t sue you… like, say, your cat.
  2. You might get so caught up on being true-to-life that you’ll kill your story.  Remember, fiction is by definition fictional.  It’s not about getting the facts exactly right; it’s about crafting a story that reveals a greater Truth about life, humanity, all that good stuff.  Of course you can base certain elements of a character on a real person but in the end, you may have to discard some details that echo reality in favor of ones that will serve the story.

Situations:  The place where I discover most of my characters are in the situations themselves.  I often start with a vague idea like: “What if when you die, your job becomes to convince other newly-dead people about the benefits of being dead?”  Then I work on developing a character who would be the worst possible candidate to cope with that situation.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive.  After all, we’re usually taught to develop our character first then throw obstacles at him or her.  But if you think about it, this method accomplishes the same thing.  The only difference is that instead of starting with a character and developing obstacles that will throw him or her for a loop, you think of the situation first and then develop a character who’s most likely to freak out in that scenario.

Pictures:  I love looking at a picture and trying to figure out the story behind it.  Some of my favorite artists for this exercise are Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and Edgar Degas.  Photography is also a great resource–especially antique portraits or work that’s photojournalistic in style.  Every time I go to a museum, I’ll get a handful of postcards that I think might spark interesting characters.  These days with the interwebs at our fingertips, we can find inspiration without even leaving the comfort of our office chair.  Here’s one of my favorites:

Quotes:  One of the great things about living in a big city is that people will say the craziest things in public.  Seriously, it boggles my mind what some people will say while riding the subway or talking on their cell phones.  I used to feel bad about eavesdropping but now I figure, if these people are talking that loud, it’s because they want me to hear and use it in my book.  Whenever I hear a good line, I jot it down right away.  Here’s one I recently rediscovered in an old notebook:  “What do you mean she’s pregnant?  I thought she was just getting fat.”  Even though I just wrote down the quote and made no notes about the speaker, I get a clear mental picture of this character right away.

What about you: where do you go to find characters?  I showed you my sources, so now you show me yours, k?  Awesome.


Comments on this post

  1. Bookewyrme says:

    I mostly get mine from pictures or dreams. Sometimes I almost do that situation thing too though. I create a "strawman" sort of character as a place-holder, and then come up with a bit of plot and as the plot progresses, the character becomes more real and less of a placeholder.


    1. L.A. Colvin says:

      I like to watch people and make up stories about them but mostly I do the what-ifs too. My characters also come from situations and needs. If I needed someone to fix the cable and he was late then I get a story of why he was late and who that person is.

      1. Misha says:

        Hahahaha believe it or not, my characters find me. I guess my mind sponges up everything as you said and then spews out a new creation.

        Or… they just walk into my head and insist on being written about.


        1. Lindz says:

          I second Misha's approach, I feel like my character's find me. My characters come ready made with a look and a 'keystone trait', so all I need to do is sit down and have a long chat with em'. I'm in the throes of getting to know a new character right now, and its a ton of fun.

          1. Marie Rearden says:

            Ooh, nice post.

            I use a dash of real life inspiration and add in some imagination. That way, no one can say 'hey, that's me!' but I'll still know.

            Marie, http://marierearden.blogspot.com

            1. Guinevere says:

              Besides basing characters on people I know, I eavesdrop shamelessly, stare at people on the street who look like they would make good characters, and write notes to myself.

              Being a writer can lend itself to being a bit socially awkward…

              1. Kari Marie says:

                I like your idea of defining the situation and then figuring out the worst possible person to fill the roles! I'm a people watcher, but I also get my characters from images and news stories.

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