Reader Friday: How Do You Create Characters?

There are three kinds of writers: those who can count, and those who can’t. Also, those who like to fill out questionnaires or do extensive biographies of their main characters, and those who like to make up characters “on the fly” and flesh them out as they go along. So what is your preferred method for creating original and dynamic characters for your fiction?

18 thoughts on “Reader Friday: How Do You Create Characters?

  1. The method that’s worked best for me: create an unusual but plausible situation – for instance, a man’s wife and child are murdered in a home invasion, as part of the same attack that leaves him in the hospital, leaving his mistress to investigate the crime – and then ask, “What kind of person would find themselves in this situation? What would they plausibly do?”

    So, in the above example: I need a woman who’s willing to sleep with a married man, yet who also has enough integrity and determination to get to the bottom of a mystery, even in the face of gossip and other threats. From that kernel emerged Mara Cunningham, protagonist of Too Close to Miss.

    Starting with a compelling situation, then creating the type of character who would find themselves in that situation, has worked okay for me so far.

  2. I’ve tried to make myself do character questionnaires and profiles, but I just can’t seem to make myself do it.

    Similar to John’s reply above, I usually have a story in mind or a premise and develop the characters to suit it.

    BK Jackson

  3. So far, most of my protags are some facet of myself. In “Ride the Lightning,” the two main lawyers are the two sides of my personality. One is smart, nerdy, pedantic, and socially awkward. The other is the type who can walk into court and conduct a trial for a client she’s never met.

    My ancillary and bad guys come from people I meet in my biz and travels. I file away bits and pieces of personality, odd phrases, and attitudes. In “RTL,” the victim and bad guys are all cops. In the new WIP, “Dial 1-PRO-HAC-VICE,” one of the antags is based on some FBI guys I met at a writers’ conference.

    My new day job (or as John would say, my “big boy job”) is awesome. I am in emergency management and on the mailing list for DoD, FEMA, Homeland Security, CDC, you name it. If anyone needs to borrow a FEMA WMD field guide or a CDC pandemic response plan, email me.


  4. I try to give them a background before I begin heaping trouble on them. I’m not as interested in physical characteristics at the beginning, but I’m looking for potential conflict. I try to determine each character’s motives and their greatest fears. Once I know their greatest fear, that is where I try to start the story.

  5. Usually I start with a vague idea about personality and since I am a fantasy writer, a magic ability. Then I start thinking about all the way someone with that ability can get into trouble and/or how that ability would make their life miserable.

    I don’t usually use a questionnaire, but I have a set of questions from a writing course I took that I like to use. They are questions like, “Your friend recently said something to you that changed the way you think about life. What is it, and what’s changed? More importantly, what are you going to do about it?”

    I then answer in the character’s voice. It’s a great warm up exercise, but it hardly is the end all, be all.

    The vague majority of the character comes from writing.

  6. I usually have an idea for a character in a certain situation, and “what would he/she do?” From there I use Scrivener’s character sheets to fill in background info – stuff that may or may not make it into the story, but helps me understand the character so that I remain true to his/her personality.

  7. I usually know not only the character’s physical attributes but their idiosyncrasies what they did in the fifth grade that made them start smokingand eventually the reason for jumping off the bridge.

    If my character doesn’t talk to me its either wrong for the story or not a good character to use. I WILL either dump the character or the story or in the case of one story both.

    I am a by the seat of the pantser if the storyis forced to me then it will be to the reader.(Thank you JSB for teaching me that.)

  8. I usually get a broad vision from someone I’ve met or already know and piece bits together based on the plot. Then I go into character traits, personality and embellishments (food, clothing, music, etc).

    I tend to plot in detail and find that without strong characters, I’ll be stuck on structure later on, so for me, characters have to make sense from the beginning.

  9. Terri: I’d LOVE a copy of that pandemic response plan!, please.

    Regarding characters, I HATE the 40-bazillion questions technique. Can’t stand it. BUT! I DO ask them these questions at the beginning of the story, at each turning point, and at the climax:
    1. What are your goals?
    2. What do you want?
    3. What do you need?
    4. What do you yearn for?
    5. What do you fear?
    6. What secret are you keeping?
    7. (I ask this of myself) What will they NOT get/achieve at each turning point and at the end. That leads then to determining how they’ll change along the way.

    For me these questions are a lot more functional and practical than “What do you eat for breakfast?”

  10. Whatever your method, I find the most important thing is the create *spare* characters. You just never know when you’ll need an unplanned death scene. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I build 1/4 scale, anatomically correct models of my characters out of lego’s, erector sets, tinker toys and papier mache. Then I give them pull string voice boxes to answer interview questions.

    I’m thinking of changing this method though, because recently the characters from my last novel started talking without me first using the pull strings.

    Basil, why did you leave us out of this book?

    It’s not nice to leave your creations out, Basil.

    You trained us to kill in your books, Basil.

    You trained us to kill, Basil.

    You trained us to kill Basil.

    Kill Basil. Kill Basil. Kill Basil.

    **This post was written from the inside a cushion fort behind my living room couch. Please send food, ammo, and help.

  12. I’m just thankful I don’t use Basil’s method! I often get inspired by real historical figures and then they morph into their own people. I am very visual so I see the characters in my mind first and then their feelings/backstory and motivation evolve. Then I sit down and try and establish a character profile but the first step is always a vision of them in my mind.

  13. I’m always looking for ’em everywhere I go. You overhear a comment. Hear a tune. See a photograph. Read something (of course). The good ones jump up. Demand attention. Have something to say.

    Mostly, I try and pay attention. Carry some note paper and a pen. Write it down, before it’s gone. The ones who persist, who stick around, either have a story or are looking for one.

  14. Ross – got your email and will get back to you. I am still mucking through my new command bunker, it looks like a tornado went off inside instead of outside. I’ll round up a copy of the plan and send you a shout-out.


  15. I’m a totally “on the fly” writer. It’s difficult for me to really know what my characters are like until I see them within the world of their story. By the end of the first draft of my book, I know them completely, so that I’m able to tweak and build even more during the editing process.

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