How to Bring Characters in From the Cold


Cold CharacterVirtually all books on character creation contain a list of questions, a “dossier” to fill out which starts with how a character looks, where he was born, and so on through his family circumstances, education, likes and dislikes, etc.

I have not found such forms helpful. It may just be a personal quirk, but I’m never excited about filling out answers to questions.

First of all, too many answers too soon might hinder the development of a character. A book is a living, breathing entity. If I have a long list of facts for a character before I begin writing, it hamstrings me. I may want the character to do one thing or another, but the dossier is set and works against me.

Characters I create using the dossier method seem cold and distant. I want characters who are hot and close.

Consequently, I’ve come up with my own way of bringing story people to the page. It starts with my protagonist and finding a visual (a head shot) that resonates with me, that says to me, This is her! I copy that image and paste it on a character card in Scrivener (this way, I can look at a corkboard of all my characters at once).

Next, I want a unique voice, and that comes from a Voice Journal, a free-form document of the character talking to me. I let the character go on and on until I hear a distinct and surprising voice. It always happens, bubbling up from my basement without me being overtly conscious of it.

From here I usually go to my “mirror moment.” I brainstorm it by making a list of possibilities, until one clicks. Then I let the character talk to me in the Voice Journal. When I nail that moment, I know my pre-story psychology (and can brainstorm that, again with the journal) and the transformation at the end (I try to visualize a scene to prove the transformation. All this is explained in my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle).

I’ll spend almost as much time with my antagonist, but relatively little with the other characters I’ve cast in the story. Why? Because I want to be able to manipulate them as needed. God complex, don’t you know?

As I write to my “signpost scenes” I’ll be creating characters along the way. Instead of stopping for each and filling out a form, I just ask the character to tell me what I need to know!

For example, let’s say I’m writing a scene about a lawyer interviewing a witness. The lawyer is the main character, a female public defender. The witness is an old man who used to be a … I’m thinking about it … I want him to be blue collar … how about a machinist?

I know my Lead pretty well. Now I’ve come to this old man. He’s going to be an important player, so I start by giving him some basics—age, looks, vocation. I’ll find a head shot to match.

Now to the scene. My lawyer is questioning him in his home, and he doesn’t want to talk to her at all. Why not? So I can have conflict, of course. But the question now is why? Why would he refuse?

I asked him.

You wanna know why I don’t want to talk to a lousy lawyer? Well I’ll tell you. The minute you start flapping your gums is the minute you’re going down, because the whole system is rigged against you. I was going good there when the aerospace boom was on in L.A., out there in the San Fernando Valley, and I was good at what I did, I could operate anything, and I had a friend, Buck Franklin, that was the scum sucker’s name, he took me to a couple of meetings where a guy wanted to know if I could use some more scratch, and of course I could’ve, we all could’ve, and before I know it I’ve got a couple of Gs in cash but this guy wants me to give him some information about what’s going on inside Rocketdyne, and I say sure, but instead what I do is go to the FBI, right to ‘em, and tell ‘em what’s going on. But before I can say Jack Robinson, they turn around and arrest me because of some evidence that got planted, because the agent on the case was dirty, but I was never able to prove it, not even to the L.A. Times who wouldn’t touch my story. And I end up out of a job and out of a pension, and can’t get hired, and Buck Franklin ends up farting through silk. So yeah, I’m not talking, I’m clamming, I don’t care if I see the Queen of England walk up to a drug dealer and blow his brains out and take his money. You’ll get nothing from me.

This all just came out as I wrote. I kind of like it. I can tweak it as I will. But the big thing is this: I now feel this character. When I render him on the page he will alive for me––and thus, I hope, for the reader.

So there’s my tip for today: Don’t fill out forms. Let the characters tell you about themselves. And if what they say is Dullsville, dig deeper. Make them reveal a secret to you. Ask them what the one thing is they don’t want anyone to ever know about them.

That’s how you bring your characters in from the cold.

So what about you? What is your process for character creation? Do you like the dossier method? Or are you more of a “character pantser” who creates on the fly?

48 thoughts on “How to Bring Characters in From the Cold

  1. I have attempted the dossier method on a few occasions and found it stilted and boring and therefore unsuccessful. I find this ironic because I’m a facts and figures kind of person–I typically like a rapid succession of facts and data. But it just doesn’t work doing a dossier on a character.

    The method I do use is rather time consuming and probably not the most expedient, but it’s the system I’m using at the moment and am sure I will refine as the years roll by.

    Since I write historicals, I first google a summary of international, national, and regional events in that order, covering the time period I’m writing about. While I know Wikipedia is poo-poo’d as a source for research, I find it invaluable for getting a snapshot look at timelines or events (for example, if you Google “1829 United States”, you will see Wikipedia gives you a page that outlines the current administration, how many states in the union, key events that year, notable births and deaths (and yes, you do need to cross check because you will occasionally find conflicting info).

    While others might find this method clunky and time consuming, I find it helps me to begin to formulate my characters because I need to know what events were shaping the characters in my time-period. Often this phase triggers the creative juices and light-bulbs some possibilities for the character(s) and story’s direction.

    It is only after I’ve done this that I do a bit of the voice journaling which will most likely drive me to dig a little more for research, back to the voice journal and so on. I only voice journal long enough to get the feel of the character in my mind then move on, especially since I usually have several characters in my story I need to give life to.

    I’ll be interested to see how my process has changed 5 years from now. 😎

    • BK, I think you’re right on for historicals, as actual events and circumstances must play a critical role. I don’t see how you could go about it without some “clunkiness.”

      Part of the fun I had with my Kit Shannon series was including historical personages and having them do and say things consistent with their actual profile, which of course required research (i.e., knowing they could have been in Los Angeles during a certain period of time, etc.)

  2. Have to agree on the lack of effectiveness of ‘character profiles’. The idea that you have to know what kind of transmission the hero’s second car had before you ‘really’ know him is ludicrous. And most of these profiles bury you in information. Creating all this background, then finding you toss 85% of it does not work for me.

    I’ve done a bit of research on some well known characters in crime fiction and it’s surprising how little the authors have spelled out. Lew Archer, Adam Dalgleish, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Marple – very little backstory on any of them, even given that they are series characters.

    Personality does come through. Basic values come through. A few quirks and mannerisms come through. But all that background – virtually never.

    So I like the idea of ‘talking’ to the character and getting some idea of what they sound like, what their general background is, and what they will do in various situations. I think you end up with infinitely more interesting and memorable characters using this technique.

    • The idea that you have to know what kind of transmission the hero’s second car had before you ‘really’ know him is ludicrous.

      LOL, Stephen. You’ve captured the problem…OTOH, if the character had an undue and unhealthy love for that second car (think: Stephen King) and told us about it in his own words, then we’d be cooking!

  3. As you have stated, Wikipedia is fantastic for general reference. It’s unfortunate that a simple misunderstanding has caused such widespread mistrust of its veracity. No general reference encyclopedia is suitable for citation in academic papers, not even the Encyclopedia Britannica. Primary or secondary sources are required. Students often fail to understand this distinction. When their Professors tell them that they shouldn’t cite Wikipedia when writing research papers, many assume it’s because the information can’t be trusted. This misunderstanding has now spread to the general population. It’s tragic.

    • I do have trouble with the constant editing/re-editing by dueling agendaists. Controversial topics, people, and historical events are all subject to this. I’d make Wikipedia the starting point for further research and verification, but never the final authority.

  4. Totally agree that character profiles and interview sheets don’t work for me. I prefer to plunge in and put them in a situation, be it simple or complex, and keep asking “Why?” Why would he say that? Why would he do that? I also deal with character GMC and let that lead me through the process. And sometimes, stuff just ‘clicks’ like when I was listening to Leader of the Band and Blake’s hidden secret was revealed — “Papa, I don’t think I said I love you near enough.”

    Right now, all I know about my lead characters in the WIP is that Bryce thinks everyone has an agenda and doesn’t trust people. Cecily trusts everyone and wants to help them all. Bryce doesn’t talk much. Cecily wants everything on the table. And that’s enough for a start (I’m 25K in).

    I find if I know too much, my writing gets stilted. And if anyone knows why someone is killing cows on Colorado cattle ranches, that would help me get over my current plot bump.

    • Thanks Terry. I do like that WHY question, and ask it a lot.

      For those who aren’t familiar with GMC, that stands for: goal, motivation, and conflict. I don’t know who originated that, but I think it comes from the world of RWA.

      RWA stands for Romance Writers of America, BTW.

      BTW stands for “By the way.” LOL

      LOL stands…(I’m stopping now)

      • Goal, Motivation, and Conflict was developed by Debra Dixon, who’s a romance author, but people are people, and those concepts work for any character regardless of genre. Sorry I didn’t spell it out.

  5. I absolutely cannot go along with the dossier method. Talk about a fire extinguisher on my creative flame. I start with the protagonist, of course. From my one line description, I know what kind of character I need. From that point, I determine what fear would make his quest the most difficult, and then develop the backstory to make that fear plausible. Often that backstory opens up many avenues. I then work on his man in the mirror moment and climax, where he overcomes the fear to gain the victory. Everything else is details that I can pick out as I write the rough draft. By the end of that draft, I know him well enough to flesh him out in round two. Same thing with the antagonist. I like to make sure my antoginist has a backstory that will make my readere feel sympathetic for him, so he can almost become the protagonist if not for one bad decision in his life.

    • Fear is a GREAT thing to know about a character. Thanks for mentioning it, Ron. You can pick a fear and backstory it; or you can ask the character what he fears, and then ask Why?

      I love using the fear factor in every scene, in one form or another.

  6. Wow! Thank you so much for this post. You probably saved me from making a mistake. I’m writing my first novel and I sat down to answer loads of questions about my main character yesterday. I felt the creative juice dry up after 30 minutes. I’ve heard of journaling for the character once before and had forgotten about that method. I’ll be trying that today. I enjoy reading this blog. It’s been so helpful and the times, like yesterday, when I found myself stuck, this blog always has the answer. Thank you again.

    • Cindy, you took me down memory lane. Before I wrote my first full-length novel I did the same thing, because I’d read it in a book on characterization. The author even says in this book, “Character IS outlining.” And then the list of questions to answer. He said that would make the writing “fun.” But I found it to be the opposite!

      Funny, but I wrote a note to myself in the book, at the end of that section. The note is probably from 1991 or so: “Have the character & voice in mind. BECOME the C.” I was giving myself an alternative!

      • I agree, answering a million questions is Not fun. But becoming the Character, now that’s fun. It didn’t take long to get some new ideas.

        Thanks again, my story is flowing now.

  7. I love the voice of the old man! No, I don’t use a character dossier. My mind doesn’t work that way. I tend to be very audio-oriented, even while reading I’m drawn to certain authors’ sentence and story rhythm, so I listened to my characters ramble on and on until I nail their voice. Only then do I begin to write. No pictures. But I will scribble a few notes so I don’t have blue eyes in one scene and brown in the next.

    • Note to Sue: You can have blue eyes in one scene and brown in the next. Just make sure the character is a shape-shifter.

      Problem solved.


      Audio…yes…I need to “hear” the voice or I just can’t write.

  8. I’ve used the visual picture method to great advantage in my WIP. Since I’m a beginning novelist, and a visual person in “real life”, it’s helped me see the character from the beginning. I made a collage of the 9 major/minor characters and it’s the cover of my notebook with current manuscript. In fact, I recently changed one of the major characters, my POV character’s daughter — I initially had a young Reese Witherspoon as her visual but she was too sweet and gullible – switched the visual to Claire Danes at 24 year old and she suddenly came together in my mind in a whole new way.

    Thanks for your contribution here. I look forward to Sundays every week, just to see what new advice you share.

  9. It starts with my protagonist and finding a visual (a head shot) that resonates with me

    I do the same thing. My first draft will include pix and brief bios of all the main characters, as well as snippets from my research. After I’ve gone though at least a dozen re-writes – no exaggeration – I’ll save the document one more time under the working title, then copy and paste just the story into its own document under the new title.

    • Just don’t make the mistake I made–for one of my novels I saved a link that had the PERFECT photo of my protag and heroine–even the setting of the photo just shouted “THIS IS MY STORY!” Well I put the novel away for a while & when I came back to it later and wanted to revisit the photo and restart the creative batteries, the link was dead and I couldn’t find the photo again anywhere.

      Save the pics, not the links! GRRRR!!!!!!!!

  10. Thanks for another great post, Jim.

    I like your system for the protag:
    -mirror moment

    Some place along the way I’ve read about a “word cloud.” I forget who I should credit. It’s kind of an extension of the journal – free-form, random words and phrases related to the protag as I think through the story.

    And for the Secondary character, I love the deep dark secret journal.

    On another technique, I waited for the print copy of ROMEO RULES. I was two nights into reading before I realized you had incorporated a “vortex” technique to suck me into the story with no place to get out. Blitzkrieg scenes and invisible chapters. I couldn’t stop reading. It dawned on me that maybe I could market bedside timers for readers, so they would know when to stop. But no, the whole writing community would be on my case. Almost finished with ROMEO RULES. Love the story. Hope someday you’ll discuss the how, when, and why of the vortex technique.


    • Steve, thanks for the good word about Romeo’s Rules. I think I know what you mean by “vortex scenes,” but not sure about “invisible chapters.” What’s that all about? Whatever it is, if it’s working, I’ll keep doing it!

        • Ah, good. I thought you might have meant chapters I didn’t need to write!

          With my thrillers now, I like to write in scenes, and use white space to do the breaks. It’s more cinematic. I think “chapters” are a relic of the past.

  11. The Voice Journal idea is such a very important idea. I often include foreigners, people of ethnic minorities, people with sinus problems, people who have their own private, inner rages going on, and so forth, in my stories.

    I wrote one scene in which a WWII B-17 waist gunner had a horrible toothache. (There was dental care but no dental hygiene as we have now, for Eighth Air Force personnel in England in 1942.) The strain and agony of his trying to communicate, being certain his oxygen mask and tube did not freeze up and clog (from the excess stuff flowing from his mouth), and the intoxicating, sleep-inducing effects of the medicinal liquor supplied the gunner by the flight surgeon to keep him flying as there are just no more men available) was so very difficult to write. Just to function when there were FW 190s strafing in from all points of the clock, required herculean effort on his part.

    I had to make the stuff up on the spot.

    How much easier and orienting it would have been had I known of, or thought of, writing out a lot of it in a Voice Journal before hand. I’m going to celebrate this idea, Mr. Bell, with an extra bowl of Honey Cheerios before church this morning. Thank you.

  12. “Ask them what the one thing is they don’t want anyone to ever know about them.”

    Just saved the above in my memorable quotes file (which, BTW, has a disproportionate contribution of quotes from JSB!).

    This “secret” technique really nails the heart of what drives characters, especially antagonists. Same with your Voice Journal.

    Appreciate the translation of GMC, which I didn’t know before and is great, useful shorthand.

    TYVM, JSB! (Thank you very much)

    P.S. Just finished Romeo. A case study in how to craft a compelling voice.

  13. Good morning, Jim and everyone. Enjoy reading your Sunday posts and all the comments. I’m amazed by how all of us work a different process. Six years later, I’m still finding my work process! LOL.

    Took an online class several years ago, and there was a character questionnaire, a Q&A format. Being ADD, I balked. I can’t even load a dishwasher like other women, so the questionnaire format mutated. (And if you knew me, you would realize that things tend to mutate around me).

    Instead I interviewed my male lead, which more or less devolved into a police interrogation. Might as well have shined a light in his eyes and threatened to pistol-whip him. My character hated being pinned down, yet I remained persistent, asking humorous, off-the-wall questions, only to get a snarling answer from him.

    It was hilarious. And useful! And quite possibly bipolar.

    Jim, I just finished your “How To Write Dazzling Dialogue,” another terrific How-To. Ordered your “Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing.”

    What I really appreciate about your How-To books, is not only the superb content – certainly your humor – but also how succinct you are.You say so much and yet the white space is inviting. Not intimidating.

    • Thanks for those nice words, Cheryl. And it’s funny, in my workshops I sometimes do a “grill the character under the lights” exercise. A great way to sweat out some surprising stuff!

  14. The dossier method always struck me as something they’d give you in a middle school “creative writing” class, or a tool for writing a book report in the fourth grade. I like my characters to act, and then explain themselves to me.

  15. Another good blog, Jim. I try not to know too much about my characters’ relatives, ex-wives and siblings. Never know when I’ll have to rescue or deal with a long-lost spouse or cousin in a novel. Comes in handy for long-running series. I’ve just finished my 15th Dead-End Job mystery, THE ART OF MURDER.

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  17. A great post and comes at just the right time. In fact, they all seem to come at just the right time. :o)

    I’ve used character charts in the past for just basic info (name, age, birth date, weight, height)- the kind of stuff you’d find on a driver’s license. I might give them a few basic characteristics (selfish, “fabulous”, walks with a limp, etc), but then I do extensive research on the character and interview them, usually with “Why is X characteristic important? Why did I include that, and not his love for cat videos or his grandma’s cornbread?” Honestly, it’s amazing the kind of person who emerges from a few scant details, rather than a deep question on their relationship with grandma when the character was 10.

    In one of my WIPs, a yakuza boss has blue eyes. A Japanese man with blue eyes is pretty unusual, so I questioned him extensively about it. Having a couple of European ancestors is one of the reasons he’s clawed and scraped his way to the top. Those blue eyes inform his entire world view- he was never Japanese enough and he’s got a lot to prove.

    Don’t get me wrong; character charts can be incredibly useful if you’re interested in the whole person from woe to go, but I find letting the characters speak through the scant details is much better.

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  19. I found that by doing voice journals, I not only came to know the characters better, but I also developed the plot, the conflicts and the personal relationships with more layers and nuance than I otherwise would have had. In some ways the voice journals fleshed out the main plot points more effectively for me. Then I was able to incorporate them into my scene by scene outline.

    • Great point, James. All the stuff that bubbles up for the VJ is potential plot material, secrets, relationships, wounds, ghosts from the past, etc. If you tried to do this by answering questions in some objective manner, you’d get more surface-level stuff, IMO. Nice to hear it’s working for you.

      • I’m sure you hear this a lot, but I recently discovered your books on writing and they have been invaluable. I have been using them to create a system for constructing and revising my novels. I can’t thank you enough for these books. I never understood how to build a story until I read them, despite having read well over a dozen books on the subject. Thanks again.

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