Friday, September 11, 2009

Populating Your Stories

Creating believable characters is an interesting topic for me since I'm still not sure I'm actually creating them. :) I wracked my brain all this week trying to figure out how I create the people who fill my stories. I came to a couple conclusions. First, there is no formula for creating believable characters (at least not one I know). Second, everyone creates characters differently. Some will pull people from real life, change their names and voila. Their character is born. Others will meld several real people together. Still others will produce a person purely from imagination.

One thing I have found to be helpful before writing a story or novel is to really understand my characters before I actually begin. I didn't do this with my last novel, and it showed. When I went back and figured out my character's history I was able to write her a lot more effectively. Which isn't to say you have to do this or that to write great fiction.

Some writers enjoy creating long biographies of their characters, answering questions like:

Biggest Fear:
Happiest Memory:

etc., etc., etc. And if that's fun for you to do, I say go for it! Others will sit down with a piece of paper (or their laptop) and in their character's perspective write a journal entry. Or maybe they'll pretend their character is sitting across the table, and they'll interview them, recording it all as they imagine it. (You oughta know by now us writers are a little weird!)

Does it help you to know I haven't figured out yet what works best for me? I'm still discovering every day I write how to create believable characters. What usually happens is I'll have a tiny idea of the type of person I want to create. For example, with the last book I wrote, for years I wanted to write about someone who got to a desperate point in their life where they had nothing but the clothes on their back and maybe a backpack. And maybe they were running from someone or something. I started asking myself questions like, what would bring someone to that point, how would they react, where would they go? So the character was born out of a plot idea. That's usually the way it happens for me.

What I'd love to do is open the floor to all of you. How do you approach creating a character? Or maybe you could tell us how you actually went about creating one in your story. We're all ears!


  1. Great discussion!!

    If I have the time or if the story is big enough, I will sometimes to do that character spreadsheet. I usually discover new layers of my character I had no idea existed that way! But it is a time consuming method and I don't do it for every story.

    Here's something some writers might not have thought of trying: I usually search baby name websites for my character's names, and sometimes the meaning of the names I like will spark an entirely new plot angle. For example, in a beach series I'm going to be pitching to my agent soon, the heroine's name means "sea of bitterness" and conveniently, before I even realized that, her backstory was being terrified of the ocean because that's how her parents did. Cool huh?

  2. How her parents DIED, sorry. lol Got distracted by my 14 month old trying to eat a balloon.

  3. What I find weird (but also pretty cool!) is that my character seems to be creating HERSELF! I've had this idea in mind for a while now and had her name picked out, family planned out, and life story imagined.

    And then I tried to change it. I thought of a new name. I gave her a completely different family. And I tweaked her life story.

    And it just felt WRONG! It's actually pretty cool.

  4. Oh, great post! :) I seem to create my characters a little differently every time. Sometimes they're based off of someone I know or heard about... sometimes I'll hear movie lines, music lyrics, news stories, etc. and get character ideas from that.
    Occasionally I'd do what Betsy suggested, and go to baby naming websites and get ideas from the meaning, where the name originally came from, or simply how the name sounds. I don't know... I create my characters in all different kinds of ways, I guess! ;)

  5. Very interesting post, CJ!

    I don't really "create" my characters. They come to me, fully formed in a "vision." (Think the video Princess Leia recorded of herself and her plea for help on R2D2.) A picture of them pops into my head immersed in a scene. It's almost as if it's THEIR plea for help... help to tell their story. But just as a real person introduces themselves to you a little at a time, so my characters also reveal themselves in incriments. Sometimes they tell me their name, sometimes I have to ask or search for it. I have to "spend time" with them, mulling over what I saw, and asking them why they were doing what they were doing. Sometimes I get other clips of their "story" that help me put the pieces together.

    It sounds so crazy, doesn't it? No one but a writer could understand!