Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Writing Tuesday - Tips on Creating Characters

You've got a great idea for a story and a plot that won't leave you alone. You dream about it at night. It haunts you during the day. Now all you need are some characters for your plot.

Before you can write, you need to flesh out your characters a little bit and get to know them.

Inspiration for your characters generally have four sources:
Real people you know
Real people you hear about
Pure imagination

There are strengths and weaknesses to each category so consider it all before you start to flesh out your characters

You, the author, were there emotionally, so you can draw on your own experiences and feelings. The drawback is you might be too close and lose your objectivity. The inside knowledge you bring is great, but be mindful to keep your objectivity.

Real People You Know
Say your best friend loves to tell jokes and that's a trait you want to bring to your character. You can blend traits with others (such as a fear of being alone) for depth to craft the character you want for your plot. The drawback is this might limit your imagination so that's something to be mindful for.

Real People you Hear about
Oh, those Kardashians! We know them from what we read about them, but we don't really know them. Look at Kim. I don't think we'll really know if the marriage was real for her or not. When you base a character on a real person you've heard about, it can work well because you're not held to any facts. You can get very creative with your character choices.

Pure imagination
You are only limited by your imagination. From the spark of an idea, you can build the character you need for your story. It takes creativity and time though to really flesh out this type of character, which might take time away from other aspects of your writing.

Characters in a story are either "changers" or "stayers." The main character is usually a changer – a character who grows or learns something due to the events of the story. A "stayer" is a character who can't/or doesn't change. (emotionally, they don't grow.)

Change for the main character is what a story/plot is all about. Readers love a good emotional arc and to be convincing, the author must make the reader believe the character can change.

As part of my "preliminary work," I like to put together character mini bios. This helps me to flesh out the basics: their names, backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes. I also like to "cast" them so as to get a feel for them visually. If I have time, I like to write a short story or a vignette to see how they'll react to certain events. This way when I'm ready to write my story, my characters are ready for the ride.

Feedback: Do you have any tips you can share?

Reference: "Characters, Emotions, and Viewpoint," by Nancy Kress, Writer's Digest Books, 2005, 231 pages.


  1. Love this post, Steph. Your characters are always fully rounded and now I know why. You really think it all through.

    I also like to have bios of my characters. I don't do short stories for them but that's a cool idea.

  2. I like to people watch. And I like to use my family and friends alot, but mutate them... their traits and characters with someone else's features and so on. I have used different character charts which help some to flesh them out, but if I get too many questions it can also drive me crazy.

  3. I'll add a thought for what it's worth. Sometimes I like to start developing my characters from a psychological bend or an inner conflict. Basically I start with an emotional problem that suits my story theme and work them into "real" characters from there.

  4. I start with characters most often before i even have a story. I thought it would be fun to create a male ballet dancer for a hero. Okay, what other types of characters would be a good contrast? -- a news reporter and a billionaire patron of the arts (oh, by the way, i write M/M romance LOL). Okay, then what's the story. The reporter is investigating the billionaire for -- yes, art theft. They both meet the dancer--one as a reporter and one as an art patron--and they both want him. That brings the three together but with tension! And so Golden Dancer was born! I guess you could say my characters tell me the plot. : )

  5. Jillian, thanks for popping in - I've done short stories on several occasions, but recently I haven't had the time. I think I would have liked to have done that though. Would you say you're a Base them on People you know, person?

    Tina, you sound like you base them on real people you hear about. People watching is a technique I know many use.

    Gloria - very interesting angle - start with the emotional problem. I think that's a good way to go because then you can flesh out the internal conflicts before you write. Do you use character bios? If so, is the emotional conflict a part of the bio?

    Tara, I like that angle as well. In a way, it's like working in reverse for me, but I believe it's important to let the characters speak to your heart. I'm going to try that with my next story. I just started researching for it and I have the "germ" of a plot. I'll let me characters tell me what's up.


  6. Stephanie

    I'm not a plotter and tend to discover my characters as I write enjoying the surprise as part of the process. Must admit to some 'people-watching' too. Those long layovers on flights to England have to be good for something!

    Angela Britnell

  7. I used my uncle's Chinese Year sign to develop the character, John Douglas in The Violin.
    I have used zodiac signs to develop characters, too.
    Sometimes I develop a character around his/her flaw or a secret they're keeping since the way in which they hide the secret or compensate for their flaw brings out certain defense mechanisms or coping mechanisms in the character.
    Loved your very interesting blog.

  8. Thanks for the interesting blog.
    I began watching people at a very early age and still do. I am a gregarious person, making friends at the drop of a hat. When I begin a story I already have the main characters in mind, usually a combination of people I know or have observed. After that I let the story bring in new characters, letting them all evolve and grow with the story.

  9. What a great blog and comments. It's fun to see how everyone creates their characters. I combine traits from people I know and people I have watched.

  10. This is a great blog, and I like this post on characters. Most times I have my characters before I start a story. I like to add a photo to their bio to bring them to life, and I can picture their expressions and visualize them in their role. Sometimes I also use zodiac signs to form their personality.

  11. I like making them up in my head, but usually with the help of people I pass by everyday. For example, the humor of a cashier at my grocery story ended up in my story with the features of a nurse at my work.