Create a Stash of Characters

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Ever wonder where an author got the idea for that fantastic character you love?  Psst, I’ll let you in on a secret.  Want to know how I find my characters? I collect them.

OK it might sound strange, but reall, how different is that from collecting stamps or seashells or bottle caps or baseball cards?  In fact, I would argue that collecting characters is by far the more productive hobby of the bunch… After all, you actually do something with the characters after you’ve collected them.  You build a stash of imaginary people all with minds of their own, just waiting for you to write a story and let them be in it.

Every great collector of characters has a different method of storing his stash.  Some lock their characters up in stories right away.  Others let the characters float aimlessly in the back of their consciousness until they have a story ready.  Personally, I like to squash my characters between the pages of my notebook, the way you might press flowers or autumn leaves.  That way, I always know where to find them.

And where do we get these characters in the first place?  Here are some of the secret places where I’ve found my best specimens.

Real Life:

Basing characters on real people has some major advantages.  For starters, you’ll be able to observe an actual person (or if the real life person is dead, you’ll likely be able to find some primary source material).  Not only that, if you’re ever wondering what your character would think or do about something, you can just ask.  That said, there are two drawbacks you’ll need to consider if you decide to base a character on a real person:

  1. You could get sued.  You can avoid this problem by doing one of three things.  A) Avoid saying anything that could get you into trouble, which could lead to a very boring story.  B) Change enough of the details so that it’s no longer obvious that you’ve based the character on a specific person.  C) Base the character on someone who can’t sue you… like, say, your cat.
  2. You might get so caught up on being true-to-life that you’ll kill your story.  Remember, fiction is by definition fictional.  It’s not about getting the facts exactly right, it’s about crafting a story that reveals a greater TRUTH about life, humanity, all that good stuff.  Of course you can base certain elements of a character on a real person but in the end, you may have to replace some details that echo reality in favor of ones that will serve the story.

Situations:

The places where I discover most of my own characters are in the situations themselves.  I often start with a vague idea like: “What if when you die, your job becomes to introduce other newly-dead people to live beyond the grave?”  Then I work on developing a character who would be the worst possible person to cope with that situation.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, after all, we’re usually taught to develop our character first then throw obstacles at him or her.  But if you think about it, this method accomplishes the same thing, it just does it backwards.  Instead of starting with a character and developing obstacles that will throw him or her for a loop, you think of the situation first and then develop a character who’s most likely to freak out in that scenario.

Pictures:

I love looking at a picture and trying to figure out the story behind it.  Some of my favorite artists for this exercise are Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and Edgar Degas.  Photography is also a great resource–especially antique portraits or work that’s photojournalistic in style.  Every time I go to a museum, I’ll get a handful of postcards that I think might spark interesting characters.  These days with the interwebs at our fingertips, we can find inspiration without even leaving the comfort of our office chairs.

Snippets of Dialogue:

One of the great things about living in a big city is that people will say the craziest things in public.  Seriously, it boggles my mind what some people will say while riding the subway or talking on their cell phones.  I used to feel bad about eavesdropping but now I figure, if these people are talking so loud, it’s because they want me to hear what they’re saying and use it in my book.  Whenever I catch a good line, I jot it down and stash it away for when I need an idea for a new story or character.

This week, go out and look for interesting characters so you can start boosting your stash.  Where did you come up with the idea for the main character in your current work-in-progress?  (Mine kept showing up in a dream.  Cheesy, I know, but still true.)

  • Kai

    This is why I love people so very much – the sheer variety of personalities and people out there is way more than my little imagination could ever create on its own. I don’t tend to steal whole people from my surroundings, but I do steal pieces of them and fuse them to concepts of characters I already have to create something more real. Every time I’ve purposefully set out to create a character based off of someone I knew or had met, inevitably the character would grow into something completely different.
    The MC of my current WIP actually came about in a similar, yet different manner – instead of a real person, she began as an extension of one of my RPG characters. I had a core concept which I built upon with traits stolen from real people. So I guess, maybe not that different.

  • For once, I have no clue where the characters came from. Typically, I can put a clear finger on the moment of inspiration. “This story was inspired while listening to Natalie Goldberg” or “I was thinking about this person I know who dresses a certain way and I wanted to write a second-person p-o-v story and this is what emerged” and even “I met this gorgeous young woman over lunch and I found out she was a model and I wanted to use her as an inspiration for a character who inspires another artist’s muse.”

    But my WIP is perhaps one of those rare organic experiences where the idea and character all sort of came together at the same time and each gradually defined the other as the story practically wrote itself and I watched the characters evolve over very precise lines. They surprised me but nothing they did seemed out of character.

  • @MissM_Jones

    I posted about this over on my blog today. I LOVE talking characters!
    http://www.thesweetescape.net/blog/2011/writers-write/diymfa-collecting-characters/

  • Great article! This might sound crazy, but I actually use music to develop my trunk o’ characters. If you think about it, though, songs are typically a small one-shot in and of themselves, so developing a broader picture and a character to go with it is a natural process for me.

    • DIYMFA

      Love it! I’m definitely a big fan of using music to get into a story or relate to a character. I sometimes make playlists for a given project. Like I have a DIY MFA playlist that I listen to when I do my more intense DIY MFA writing and it helps my brain get into that writing mindset.

  • Laurel Decher

    Hi, Gabrielle, I’m enjoying your site and your podcasts. I came here looking for a link to the Jane Yolan podcast to share with my SCBWI buddies and then I fell in. 🙂 I love that you do this character collection and I just admired your widget for story prompts! Recently, I made a Scrivener file that just has novel spare parts with situation, characters and settings so that I have somewhere to shop for ingredients. I feel so affirmed seeing you doing the same sort of thing. Thanks for a great post!

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