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I don’t know where they come from…

May 10, 2011

“Well I don’t know where they come from…But they sure do come…”

Good ‘ol Nugent sang it, and while his meaning was something very different then what I’m using it for, it still holds true.


You think of a story but now you need characters. They are the items that move the story along, they are the items that can keep people turning page after page, and they are in some ways the most important friend(s) to a writer. For those who write, they understand this. Writing can be very lonely. We sit there, hour after hour, creating this world. And in that world, we plop down some characters. We create these people – we meet them, pick their features, and decide their fate. Now, sure, sometimes these characters can take over a story or grow themselves, but it always starts with the writer.

But where do they come from?

I try to draw characters as people I can understand. Usually being myself. In almost every single story I write, parts of the characters come from me. If they’re in pain, I try to draw the emotion from myself and connect it to that character. And emotion is very important in character creation. There’s nothing worse then a flat character, someone who says the cliché things at the cliché moments. Every character should have their own life inside a reader’s mind. That’s how you know you’re reading something great. When you, as the reader, can visualize the characters – everything the author tells you, plus your mind running away with it. And that’s really the ultimate goal of the author – to create characters that come alive, to do their job after the author is done with theirs. As a writer, we cannot be with every reader to stand there explaining these people we’ve created. We need to be able to do it in a way that it builds the characters and keeps the story moving.

When you stop for a moment and take a look at your own life, you’ll find a wealth of information to draw on. Think of being a kid. What was the scariest moments? Why? What were the best moments? Why? What were the saddest moments? Why? And the list goes on and on… look at those around you – friends, family, strangers even. For an entire year, I watched a homeless man walk the main street that I took to get to work. Every day I would watch him, head slumping, making his way down the road. In the winter, his beard grew in thick and in the summer, it was gone. I even saw one time in the middle of summer, a man pick him up and insist on giving him a ride somewhere shaded. Those moments give me so much inspiration and ideas for characters. It allows me to look a person like that and ask “how did this happen?” and then be able to create it.

Our characters also have to be believable creations of the environment they’re in. What this means is that the characters have to work with the story itself to become real. All the elements of writing have to work together as this giant, invisible machine, all gears running smooth, and working. That’s why I (and most authors) will write in the place they’re in. For example, Stephen King’s novels are usually set in Maine. He knows Maine, he understands it, and he understands the people there. Hell, even in his Dark Tower series, he finds a way to get to Maine! When I write, I almost always set the story in some made up small town in Pennsylvania. It’s generally outside of Philadelphia, and since I’ve had the chance to live over a hundred miles north and south in Pennsylvania, I can grasp quite a bit of the landscape and people. It’s what I know, so it’s what I write.

With character creation, as writers, we get to make up imaginary friends and put them to paper. We could create nice people, mean people, evil people. We could create monsters, or pull things from our deepest nightmares. We could tap into our own personal fears to get them out or maybe tap into the fears of those we know. There’s no limit with character creation. The goal is to make those characters believable. To make them real enough that when we’re done reading them, we think… ‘I wonder what (name) would do right now? Or I wonder if (name) faced this?’

One Comment
  1. May 10, 2011 5:16 am

    I can’t say I agree with writing about me all the time. I use fiction as literary escapism, and usually pay ode to (and anonymously punish) people in my life or who’ve passed through it. I think there’s a limitation with only looking at yourself for characteristics because at that point all your characters then start to sound/act predictably the same. It’s good to expand out and use reference from many sources. Just my two cents.

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