Where do characters come from?

As we talk about characters, I've been doing a little soul searching about where my characters come from.  The truth is, I'm not quite sure.  Sometimes they seem to magically appear on the page and take over, eager to have their moment in the sun.  Other times they keep their secrets buried so deep, that it takes multiple drafts of a novel before I start to understand who they are.

So I've set out to answer the question of where my characters come from.  I imagine it's different for every writer, but I thought I'd share some of the things I've discovered so far. 

People you know.  With BANDIA, I started out writing a story that was based, in part, on my own tortured path to romance.  Although I was able to populate the novel with unique personalities, I quickly discovered that writing characters based on real people didn't work for me, because I could never really get inside their heads and know them as well as I needed to know them to write a novel.  I couldn't punish the characters the way I needed to either.  So I changed them.  First, I changed their physical descriptions and then I changed some key personality traits, quirks and backstory.  It's funny, but once I removed the real parts, the characters finally came alive on the page.  Take someone you know and then change them up a bit, creating a character that's fictional, but has layers.

People in nature.  These aren't people you know, but they are real people.  A character can be inspired by anyone, anywhere.  Maybe its the girl behind the counter at the jewelry store with the dragon tattoo snaking its way up her arm and too short hair, who never makes eye contact with her father the store owner.  Or the guy who's picture is on every other bus stop with an air brushed smile and fake hair.  Maybe its the guy who couldn't take his eyes off his date during dinner, but who flirted shamelessly with the waitress as soon his date went to the restroom.  Look around, the world is populated with people who come ready made with unique characteristics, interests and flaws.

The voice in your head. I'm not crazy.  I'm a writer.  With SPIES & PREJUDICE, the main character, Berry Fields, came to me fully formed.  I knew exactly who she was, where she came from and why she kept people at arms length.  She was a tough, hard-boiled private investigator who was more vulnerable than she realized.  She started talking and she would not shut up until her story was told.  Even then, she still pops into my head now and then, prefacing every revelation with an "okay."   

Stereotypes.  Don't shoot the messenger.  I am not advocating writing stereotypical characters.  But stereotypes are a good starting point when developing characters.  First, when you understand the common tropes and stereotypes that appear often in fiction, you can try to avoid them.  Sure, the mean girl cheerleader, geeky gamer and depressed goth kid are overused in YA fiction.  That doesn't mean you can never use them.  These characters are easily recognizable to your readers and may work well for minor characters, particularly when you don't have the luxury of showing a lot of detail about who this character is. And maybe your mean girl cheerleader has hidden depths?  Or a secret that sets the stereotype on its head.  Now we're talking...

Inspired by Plot.  A lot of minor characters are there to move the plot forward.  Don't feel bad for them, they serve a valuable purpose.  That doesn't mean that the characters shouldn't be three dimensional people who feel real, but often the plot will dictate their job, hobbies or reason for being in the scene.  Use that as a jumping off point.  The hotel employee who gets tricked into letting Berry into Lance's room?  She was inspired by the plot point.  But she also needed a motivation for wanting to help Berry, so I made her a hopeless romantic who's been unlucky in love.

Reflections.  You want to populate your novel with individuals, not a bunch of clones who all look and act and feel the same.  Minor characters should play off of the main character, with some opposite traits and reactions.  This gives the story some balance and allows the characters to play off of and influence each other.

Desires.  Some characters are defined by what they want.  In some instances when developing a story you will start with this desire.  Maybe you already have a main character and you know that the main character wants to discover the truth about a family secret.  Maybe you know that there is another character who wants to keep that secret buried at all costs.  That desire forms the base from which the character will start to form.

Relationship to other characters.  Once you have a core group of characters, other characters will start to fill in where you need family members, teachers, bosses, co-workers, friends, love interests, etc.  The relationship to the main character and the main character's backstory may provide the foundation for these minor characters, allowing you to understand and know them through the main character's eyes.

Tone and purpose of scene.  Sometimes, especially for minor characters, the tone and purpose of the scene will provide the starting point for developing a character.  Is the scene serious and sad? Is the scene funny?  Sarcastic or broad humor?  Once you know what you want to accomplish in the scene, the motivations and personality of the minor characters will often make themselves known.

I'm sure there are many other things that inspire and provide the inspiration for characters.  Where do your characters come from?


I'm not sure. A couple of days ago I got a new character who basically came out of nowhere. She shook me away, malboro hanging out the corner of her mouth, double-D's practically in my face, wanting to talk about parents.

I don't want to talk about them, but she had something to say, and it REALLY got my attention. She said:

"Never criticize your parents for how they look in public. The chances are, you'll look just like that when you're 40."


She never did give me a name or anything, but I'm sure there's a plot in that somewhere.

A.M. Kusha,

I think she qualifies as one of those voices in your head. She sounds fun (and wise).

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