The 30-Minute Character Generator

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.15.22 AMI know some artistes rebel at the idea of systematization. But if the system is designed to unleash your imagination and send it running in productive directions, I say go for it. All the time.

You don’t want to be sitting around waiting for a Muse to start dancing.

Before I can begin to write anything, I have to know who my story is about. I’ll have a concept. I need a character. A Lead.

But I don’t want to take a lot of time doing so. I don’t want to spend weeks creating a whole history of this character’s life. I’ve never found that effective.

So I’ve come up with a 30-minute character generator. It’s a system. It gets me excited enough to start on that story journey. The system is made up of three things: a visual, a voice, and a vision.

  1. Visual – 10 minutes

Start with a look. For me, a character does not begin to take shape until I can see him.

I want to look at my character’s face and see some mystery and a suggestion of stuff happening below the surface.

There are two things I do.

First, I spend several minutes on the internet looking at images. I find a few that set something off in me, drag them to my desktop, and look at them later.

I use Google Images. I find it has more variety than, say, iStockphoto. Since I’m not going to be using these except for my own reference, there’s no copyright issue.

When I put in a search term, I use an emotional tag rather than something generic. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say my Lead is a successful businesswoman. If I just search for “businesswoman” I get all sorts of publicity style photos––smiling, confident and posed. Nuts to that.

My novel is a thriller, so I want my Lead to be troubled.

Thus, I might type “unhappy woman” or “stressed woman.” (You’ll notice that when you do this, Google Images suggests other types of searches in their top bar. Nice of them to help!)

Find faces that stir something inside you. The best is when you think “Aha! That’s her!”

The second thing I do is use my love of classic movies to think of my Lead being played by any actor from the past I choose.

For my businesswoman, suppose I think of her as Bette Davis? Or Kate Winslet?

If I like that, I can always find a head shot of that actor and use it for my model. The reader will never know.

I usually find my headshot in under ten minutes. Then I put it into my character file on Scrivener. The nice thing about Scrivener is that you can look at all your characters on a corkboard when you’re ready to roll.

  1. Voice – 10 minutes

Next, I spend at least ten minutes creating a Voice Journal. This is a free-form document in the character’s voice, talking to me. Sometimes I prompt the character with questions. Other times I let the character ramble.

I just keep typing until the character sounds like someone other than me.

Which is the key. This is where the character begins to “take on life.”

Here is a bit of the Voice Journal for Sister Justicia Marie, the Lead in my Force of Habit series:

I don’t go around looking for bad things to happen. They just seem to. Yes, I live in L.A., I know all about it, oh yes, you know my story. I was supposed to be living the dream. I was making five million a picture when I was ten. Somebody told me I was the new Shirley Temple and I Force_1looked at him and said, “That curly-headed little snot can eat my shorts.”

I actually said that. Dear Lord, forgive me for that. Forgive me for the whole of my teenage years!

But now am I in the grip of another sin? Am I wrong, my Lord, for wanting to stop bad thing from happening? Even if I have to kick in somebody’s face?

Are you calling me, Lord? Am I Joan of Arc or Joan the crazy lady who shouts in the park?

Ten minutes of voice journaling always brings happy surprises. I may continue to add to this journal from time to time during my writing or planning, fleshing out more of my character if I see the need.

  1. Vision – 10 minutes

Finally, I want to get to the heart of my character. I want to know what the character thinks most deeply about as the story begins. What is her trajectory? Her yearning? Her vision for her life?

No character in your novel should start as a blank slate.

We know that Luke Skywalker, like most farm boys, yearns for a life of adventure. He looks out at the sky, dreaming of becoming a Jedi. But the practicalities of life with his Aunt and Uncle prevent it.

Scarlett O’Hara’s vision is to become a fine, Southern lady married to a noble Southern gentleman named Ashley Wilkes. Boy, is she in for a shock.

The vision is not always a pleasant one. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games sees no hope in the future. Her vision is for survival in the daily, dismal world of Panem. Her daily life is taken up with the care of her mother and sister. She tells her friend Gale she never wants to have kids. Will anything in the story change her outlook?

Spend ten minutes exploring your Lead’s vision just before your story begins. Ask yourself how the story will frustrate, challenge, or redeem the vision.

You can do this same 30-minute exercise for your other main characters, too.

The result will be a full-blooded cast. You can start writing now, letting the characters grow organically. Or you can do more planning and backstory if that’s your preference.

Either way, the 30-Minute Character Generator will give you a solid foundation for bringing original, unforgettable characters to your novel.

Which is kind of a nice thing.

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27 thoughts on “The 30-Minute Character Generator

  1. Damn! You stole my system and gave it a name.

    Good for you, because this method, especially the character’s voice part, has really helped me shorten the character development process. I learned it by accident, i.e., used to start with a lengthy character checklist, and I’d dutifully fill it all out, but still the characters wouldn’t come to life.

    I usually have a general idea of the character’s backstory because I think it’s important to know what kind of backstory a character needs in order for the vague story idea I have to work.

    For the character’s appearance, I use a real person, i.e., someone I remember from my past (which is a loooooong past populated by mostly heroes and some villains!), and then I get right into the character’s voice. For me, once I get the character’s voice, magical things happen.

    I’ll refer to the checklist now and then if I feel the character isn’t deep enough, but the deepening seems to happen during the writing process itself.

    As for characters’ voices, a member of my writing group seems bothered by the fact that he can’t see my voice. He’s only read two chapters of my WIP, each from a different character’s POV, and each of those characters is definitely not me, nor do they have my ‘voice.’ For example, they express ideas, etc. that I disagree with, and they’re angry, angry, angry. I’m curious to see how he reacts to my third chapter from the POV of a man. Will he think that I’m really a gay man in drag?

    Perhaps because he writes a series, all from the same POV, and in the first person, he hasn’t yet grasped that if you really get into a character’s head, the character can possess you during the writing process…demonically or otherwise.

    • Thanks, Sheryl. Early in my career, I did the full length questionnaire bit a few times. It just never worked for me. I never “connected” with a character that way. I have a few key questions I want answered, but mostly it’s feeling my way to the character, and these three help me the most.

  2. Great list! I did this for the characters in my newest book Malevolent, and I think they’re the best characters I’ve written to date. They each have a goal that they’re desperate to achieve, and that drives the story in the best way. (The villains are also desperate, which sends up a fine mess of sparks.)

  3. Thanks, Jim, for another great idea.

    I’ve started doing the voice journal. I add to that what someone called a character cloud (sorry I can’t remember who I should be crediting) – just a random list of thoughts about the character.

    Then I jump to the “wants” and “needs” – internal and external motivators. I start working on the mirror moment and pre and post psychology. I suppose this should be left for the plotting stage.

    But I like the “visual” stage. I just tried it for a short story character I’m building. It’s amazing how the visual makes you think of characteristics that you would not otherwise have thought of.

    Thanks for another teaching moment.

    • Right, Steve. I really love it when I see a head shot and it “speaks” to me. I love seeing something behind the eyes. Just like when you meet an interesting person for the first time.

  4. Thanks again! Now I will add the voice journalling to my repertoire. I already use the day journal that you suggested before and love it. Since I am still in the early chapters of my sequel, I will go back and do a voice journal in Scrivener to go with the images I had already picked out (love Scrivener for getting me organized!) I had been thinking that maybe my voices (I have three protags) were not distinct enough. I am feeling excited to do this, now!

    • Julie, it is ALWAYS exciting when you do character work, and they start talking to you. Nothing gets me more juiced about writing than that. Have fun!

  5. I love this. This littlest thing will trigger it. I have this cooking in my notebook:

    Twin brothers from the LA barrios. One got the “scared straight” routine and is now a lawyer. His brother stayed and embraced the chollo lifestyle. When a high-ranking Norteno escapes from prison, it vibrates through the grapevine that he wants revenge on the prosecutor that put him there. The cops assure him that he will be safe, but instincts and events tell him it’s time to wipe the cover-up off his three-dot “la vida loca” tat and turn back to the street for protection.

    That came from a photo of Joaquin and Julian Castro.

    • I love that you got that from a photo, Terri. That’s so cool. I have a notebook of character sketches triggered by photos, or someone I saw walking by.

    • When I moved from Huntington Beach a crew of movers arrived and one had “Culver City Boys” tattooed on his neck. And they did a fabulous job, laughed at my jokes and didn’t break anything.

      Cheers!
      Jim in MT

    • For the “Vision” thing, I found that conducting a little interview with a character reveals a lot. And some of these tough guys don’t like being interviewed, so watch out.

      Cheers!
      Jim in MT

  6. Interesting…made me think about where my people come from. Unlike you, Jim, I don’t need to see them at first. But I have to hear them. The voices start murmuring in my head and as I listen, they sort of come out of fog toward me. The exception is villains. For some reason, I have to see the face of the devil before I can write about him or her. When I was looking for the murderer in “The Killing Song,” all I knew was that he was a classical cellist who lived a fine life in Paris. I found his face when, like you, I was Googling cellists and found a real guy (who must of course remain nameless). That musician became my Laurent Demarais.

    For my prosaic bad guys, I return often to the Florida Department of Corrections website. You can type in certain traits: race, age, crime committed, and the rogues gallery of mugshots comes up in all their orange jumpsuited glory. It never fails to inspire me.

  7. These are excellent tips! I use visuals a lot too, going through my favorite photo imagining sites 123rf.com and bigstockphoto to add pix to my Likeboxes. Later on, when I’m doing a book trailer or vision board on Pinterest, I buy the images to match the characters and share them this way.

  8. Awesome post! As a newcomer to writing I look forward to trying your suggestions. I’m doing a memoir at this point and it helps me to look at photos that relate to my writing.

  9. If I may… Characters, like friends, take a little while to get to know… You can’t just checklist ’em like some online dating site, so the 30 minute “Generator” looks like it allows me a chance to get to know my “new friends” (even the bad guys~ we ARE gonna be sharing the raft for a while), and allows for enough gaps to fill as together we grow (and row the raft).

    Thanks again for such a timely post~

    g

  10. This is great stuff. A perfect complement or kick start to some of the usual stuff I do. I like how it can be disassociated from the story if I’m still brainstorming ideas and characters or how it can enhance what I already have in place.

  11. I’m going to give this method a shot. I know I need to work harder on my characters given feedback I’ve received (i.e. sometimes what’s driving the character doesn’t seem clear to the reader) but I must’ve tried 50 times over the course of several years to force myself to sit down and do one of those long agonizing character questionnaires but I simply cannot do it, probably not even under threat of death. I even had one of my critiquers recommend a particular book on characterization, which also goes into agonizing detail prep before writing.

    Maybe I just have no discipline, but I think it more likely that the agonizing pre-writing formula just doesn’t work for me. On the other hand, I want to give my characters, and thereby my story, a powerful punch. So the 30 minute method sounds like a good compromise–quick and dirty, yet drawing on the art of discovery when you just free write and see what happens.

    • I’m totally with you, BK. Those questionnaires never work for me, either. It’s feeding almost randomized info into a mental database. It doesn’t feel like writing or creating. We need to FEEL our way to the characters, then add details as we see fit. That’s how I see it, at least.

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