“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” — Han Solo, originally a green-skinned alien with gills
“If by my life or death I can protect you, I will.” — Aragorn, not part of the story until Tolkien ‘saw’ him sitting in the shadows in a pub in Bree.
And do Bladorthin the Grey, Pansy O’Hara, and Count Wampyr ring a bell? The creators of Gandalf, Scarlet, and Dracula once had very different ideas about what to call their characters.
When we see, hear, or read about a great character, we are drawn in. The plot’s more exciting, the romance more meaningful, and many of our favorite stories are really just showcases for amazing, living people that have claimed a place in our hearts forever.
For me, characters are always real and fully-developed. Assume that the character exists out there — they may be fictional, but they want to be discovered, not made. Knowing they are alive out there takes the pressure off you — you don’t have to build them, just spend enough time with them that you start to hear them speak, see them act in strange ways, and — eventually — go against your plans and your plots.
And when that happens, watch out! You’ve just discovered a great character.
How to Discover Your Characters — beginning
- Ask ‘Who live here?’ “Who has the most to lose in this situation?’
- If an image comes to you, fixate on it. Stephanie Meyers had a dream about a girl and a boy standing in a meadow, and the boy was sparkling like diamonds in the sunlight. From that single image came a lot of success and reader happiness.
- Allow room for magic and mystery. Understand that you don’t need to (or even want to) understand everything about your characters and stories in the beginning. For my novel Fall Street, I had a very clear image of my hero Clare standing at the top of some stairs when a boy walks up and hands her a rose and she thinks ‘It had to be ____’ but who it had to be was a mystery I didn’t solve till quite late in the story. Trust your story. Think about it long enough, and love it enough, and the answers will come. Remember Stephen King never knows how his stories will end until he’s writing the ending.
- Find what you love. Follow the stories, books, movies, and TV that have fantastic characters you love. I love Jay Gatsby and Vin Diesel’s Riddick. Both characters inspire me. No you gets to tell you what to love. Just remember the more opportunities you have see successfully created characters, the more bold you’ll become in your own writing.
- Flip your character. When you’re first trying to even discover a wisp of your characters, try the Orson Scott Card trick (from his great book Characters & Viewpoint) — when you come up with an idea, flip it 180 degrees. Make your guy a girl, your lawyer a bum, your famous knight an underappreciated squire. Your first impulse may, subconsciously, be the very thing you’ve seen done before. As with every aspect of writing, you get to make the call in the end. You may really want that hotshot pilot — just be aware you’ll want to dig a lot deeper than that.
- How many people live here? You’ll probably add more later, but discovering your main characters helps you start honing in. Think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — two of the main characters are right there in the title, but who discovers Narnia? A little girl named Lucy, but also her sister and two brothers, and one of those brothers is a little bad…
How to Discover Your Characters — middles
- Get your characters talking. How would Lucy describe her family to you? What would that teach you about her family, and about her? Have your hero narrate their story, talk about their childhood, or show off how they can sell ice to Inuits. You don’t have to write this part down — just hear what they are saying (and not saying) and how they communicate. Are they using long words, pausing out of shyness, do they not want to talk? That also tells you something.
- Find the things that speak to your characters. Songs, jewelry, etc, can be used to inspire and pick up on the character’s mood and personalities (see more on this toward the end).
- Become a historian. We are impacted by where we come from. Write down a history of your character. With ‘Caged Heart’ I wrote down the parents’ histories for my main characters. It was fascinating to imagine how those lives impacted my heroes. Your story is like a iceberg with only the tip showing. Some characters, though, would be bored silly talking about their family — let them tell you what matters to them.
- Never be bored or needy. If you think ’I need my hero to have a sister to tell her problems to’ but nothing comes to you —stop. If you force yourself to think of a ‘sister-type’ and she’s the worst collection of clichés you’ve ever seen in your life and you fall asleep writing her dialogue and wish it were done already — stop. Just stop. Imagine instead ’What if your hero had no sister?’ Or what if her own sister bores her to tears and so she tells random clerks in stores her problems? And what if one day, one of those clerks is the man of her dreams? You could open up whole new ideas just because you’ve stopped trying to force your story to fit into space you provided for it. Your discoveries will always be better than your ideas. The good news? You can claim credit for both.
- Watch scenes. Long before I write anything down, I start seeing scenes in my mind. How did these two meet? What led him to be trapped here? The more you can play in your mind (like a kid with clay), the more you can change things. I recently had an idea about a teenage boy who lived in a medieval fantasy world and had the problem that he had been cursed and everyone thought (and saw him) as a girl. Only his best friend Rena saw the truth. That idea floated around for a couple of days, cloud-like, and then I realized they were children in our world, who played in this fantasy world. And the boy was a girl but trans-gendered, and later when he was a teenager, he ran away back to the land where he was his true self. And no one, not even his best friend, knew where he’d gone. I got all that from watching scenes like you’d watch a movie.
How to Discover Your Characters — ends
- As you start writing, slow down in each scene. Really hone in on the emotions of your characters, think about what they would and wouldn’t say. Try to control people as little as possible. Remember you don’t have to agree, or even like, what they say.
- When you are ready, they will come. Many writers report that they do not write their characters — they only dictate. I thought this sounded crazy when I started and knew it would never happen to me — now I can’t imagine how I did without it.
- Take a hike. For me, there’s nothing like a walk in nature (especially with music) to inspire me and give me a chance to hear my characters and watch their lives assemble.
- Be gentle with yourself. A first draft isn’t the final word on your characters — it’s just a first conversation. Listen to the voices in your head, play with your world, and know that character just grow more and more beautiful the more time you spend with them.
Tips & Tricks
- Songs are one of the best ways to discover your characters. If you hear a sound on the radio (or ‘all shuffle’) that speaks to you, add it to a playlist. Hitting repeat on songs that tell you about that world and characters (especially while walking) can really put you in a creative state of mind.
- Jewelry is another way. Find a talisman or pendent that means something to your character (or a watch, scarf, etc). Wearing it all day can make you understand your character’s day more.
- What inspires them? What excites them? Printout quotes, find paintings — it all moves you closer to their truth.
- Remember that everyone is living their life in a full, important way for them, and to the best of their abilities. Never doubt how different your life could be if you’d been born a different sex, race, religion etc. No one is a stereotype at their heart. Shrug off the easy answers.
- Write more. In the beginning my characters were clichés, but now they are real to me, and I have every hope that they will get more and more interesting as time goes by and I keep telling their stories in the full, rich colors they deserve.