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Creating Credible Characters—Where Do Characters Come From?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Those of you who have children are probably familiar with this question: “Mommy/Daddy, where do babies come from?”

The age of the child asking the question probably determined how you answered this question—whether you told them about the stork or about the “birds and the bees” in full disclosure mode.

Answering the question, “Where do characters come from?” is very much like answering the baby question. There’s the stork-like answer we give to non-writing friends and then there’s the full disclosure we discuss amongst fellow writers. There are no storks here (well, maybe just one).

There are usually two methods of developing characters in fiction:

(1) We have a great idea for a story—we know the plot, can visualize the action scenes, hear snippets of dialogue—and we come up with characters that will make the story happen.

(2) We have a character come to us (the stork brings him!)—we know what he looks like, sounds like, thinks, feels, does, etc.—but we have to figure out a story that will make his existence interesting to others.

In most writing circles, the first type of story is typically called “plot driven” and the second “character driven.” A plot-driven story is something like The DaVinci Code—where the action takes precedence over character development. Conversely, someone like Nicholas Sparks’s novels are mainly character driven. It’s about the emotions, about the relationships—it’s the character arc that is the most important part of the story, not the action.

    I have heard recently from a mentor at the grad school where I’m an alumna that we should be cautious in labeling our stories “character driven,” because many editors and agents interpret that as “it has no plot.”

This is not to say that you cannot come up with the character and the plot at the same time—many times, what seems to be a fully developed character will come to us with plot in hand: 1+2=novel. But even in those instances, once we start writing, we discover we didn’t know as much about this character as we thought we did. And then other characters start walking onto the stage and throwing their own ideas, their own conflicts into the mix—and things can go haywire pretty quickly . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where do my characters come from?

Most of the characters I have written have been inspired by real people (me and my friends from college who became the fictional characters I wrote about for nearly ten years and more than 200,000 words), by people I’ve seen on TV (such as the idea I came up with for a story involving a former 80s boy-band member and an opera diva forced to work together on the spring musical at the community theatre in the small city they now live in), by actors (such as George in Stand-In Groom, who was inspired by the British actor Peter Wingfield), or by other fictional characters (usually because of the way they’re brought to life by certain actors, such as my heroine’s father in Ransome’s Honor, Admiral Witherington, who was inspired by Sir Robert Lindsay’s portrayal of Captain/Commodore/Admiral Pellew in the A&E Hornblower movies).

    I wrote about the process of CHARACTER CASTING in the series “Be Your Own Casting Director,” which can be found on the FICTION WRITING SERIES page under “Storyboarding/Be Your Own Casting Director.”

I do tend to be a character-driven writer—in other words, I get inspired by characters first, story second. The story usually develops out of the characters I come up with, and each character—major or secondary—comes to me with their own story of who they are. I’ve written before about my fictional city, Bonneterre, Louisiana, that I’ve been using as a setting for more than fifteen years. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that I have a spreadsheet that contains more than five hundred “characters” who live in this city. They are named, grouped by family, and the majority of them have an occupation to define who they are. Ninety-five percent of them will never show up in anything I write. But when I do need a real estate agent or a nurse or a welder, all I have to do is go to this database (created over the span of many years), and the character is already there, set up, ready to walk on stage. With the exception of the characters from my first two complete novels, the main characters of my subsequent novels have all been developed outside of this “population database”—in other words, the database has become a repository for background characters, or extras, to use a filmmaking term.

In moving my setting to 1814 Portsmouth, England, I’ve had to create all of the characters from scratch . . . well, mostly. Many of them have been inspired by other works set during the era, though I’ve made them into my own creation. But what gave me the idea in the first place? Paul McGann as Lt. William Bush in the Hornblower movies, of course. I fell into a deep infatuation with this actor/character, which led me to the book, where the character of Lt. Bush is even more dead-set against Horatio’s marrying Maria, as he feels women are simply a distraction. So this started me thinking: what kind of woman would it take to make a man with this kind of attitude fall in love with her? I went through several different ideas until I finally came upon my heroine: the independent, “old maid” (twenty-nine-year-old) daughter of the hero’s admiral/patron—the man William most highly respects in the world. The catch—she can’t stand to even hear William’s name mentioned, because she feels he took her twin brother’s place in her father’s heart after her brother was lost at sea fifteen years before. So in fact, the Ransome trilogy was conceived/birthed because of the idea for one character. One character has spawned thirty or forty others (though I did completely cut three characters last night)—and an entire history of three families: the Witheringtons, the Ransomes, and the Pembrokes.

Where does the inspiration for your characters come from? Give an example, either of your favorite character or of the most unusual place you’ve ever gotten inspiration for a character.

11 Comments
  1. Thursday, June 14, 2007 5:38 pm

    As a newbie writer, my characters came from people I knew. Here lately, I’m finding they are coming from people I see from day-to-day.

    I recently thought up a story from seeing a pre-teen girl and her grandmother at the beach. Now writing a whole novel would be another story! I did sit down and write out a few pages. Now that it’s beach weathe again, I frequently think about the characters.

    Oh, I had a weird dream where I vividly saw two scenes play out. But the story was so weird, I wrote the scenes out and filed them.

    Thanks for doing this!

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  2. Friday, June 15, 2007 12:44 am

    You know, I never really thought about where my characters come from. I suppose they are a composite of people I know, or famous actors, but most of the time I don’t realize until well into the book that such-and-such a character reminds me of so-and-so. I think it’s subliminal for me. My family and friends tease me that they’re going to sue me when they see themselves in my books. I really don’t think they’re in there! However, my dad says that the weirdo sense of humor in my chick lits are directly from him, and he’s probably right.

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  3. Friday, June 15, 2007 9:09 am

    My characters are NOT people I’ve met or known. I guess the stork brings them–my main characters always appear (poof! and there they are), and as I flesh out the plot, I have to come up with a character or two.

    The only character I’ve ever created who is at all like a real person is the hero in the book I’m writing now. He’s a composite of a couple sports figures, but even that was because I knew the gist of what my hero was struggling with, and these two guys combined made a good foundation for him and his motivations

    I know that there are bits and pieces of me in my heroines, especially my first one since I just wrote what I know, but the woman in the book I’m working on now is totally opposite of me. Six footer, drop-dead gorgeous blonde, very assertive. It’s fun to get into a different personality!

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  4. Friday, June 15, 2007 11:38 am

    CeeCee–
    I, too, have vivid dreams—and because of my sleep-cycle (being a night person), it’s usually right as I’m waking up in the morning, so I tend to remember them. I have so many documents in my “Ideas” folder on my computer of characters or situations that I dreamed about.

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  5. Friday, June 15, 2007 2:28 pm

    Mine are composites too, of people I know or I’ve seen and wondered about. Almost all of my heroines have some part of me in them, however small. And I have to fight not to make my heros all take on my husband’s physical characteristics (truly tall, dark, and handsome).

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  6. Wednesday, June 20, 2007 9:32 pm

    Mine tend to get brought by the stork. They just appear as 90% complete characters. There’s only one that I can think of that’s based on a real person.

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  7. Wednesday, June 27, 2007 12:21 am

    This is a great series, Kaye.

    My very first hero was based on a gallant policeman who was on scene at an accident I was in when about 6 months pregnant with my last child. He was so calm and courteous, helped with my kids…not at all handsome or anything like my book character, but it triggered something in me that I hope I got across in my book in a similar scene. He brewed in my mind for months before I had to write the book!

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  8. Wednesday, February 10, 2010 3:46 pm

    Your “character database” reminds me of Indian in the Cupboard! LOL

    In one of my wips I was sorely disappointed to find out that, despite my efforts, the hero does not want to be a rugged mountain man. In fact, frankly, he’d rather sit at the computer. NO!!! I wanted to give him a gun. Haha!

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