Collecting 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 really, 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. Here’s a few examples:


Music

Choose one of the five pieces below. Don’t listen quite yet. Here’s what you will do: You will listen for at for approximately 2-3 minutes, until you get a feel for the piece. Set a timer if you need it. (Note: most of these pieces are longer than 3 minutes, so feel free to stop midway through.) Do NOT watch the videos that go with the music, just listen to the track.

While you’re listening, imagine the character the music is telling you about.

Choose one of the following links:

Fantasy: Saint-Saens – Carnival of the Animals – Aquarium
Action: Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man
Adventure: Holst – The Planets – Jupiter
Horror: Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain
Romance: Beethoven – 6th Symphony – Andante Molto Moto

Now click play and listen. Then write the character that comes to mind.

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.

Now go out and look for interesting characters so you can start boosting your stash. Also, I’d love to hear from you. Where did you come up with the idea for the main character in your current project? Mine kept showing up in a dream. (Cheesy, I know, but still true.)

  • You know I’ve never really thought of this before, but it’s great advice. There are so many times I’ll think of a character idea, but not have a story for him, so he just disappears off into the nether world. Keeping a file for those interesting people who haven’t found a story yet is the best idea I’ve heard all day. Thanks!

  • Terri Frank

    I love to mine my family history for characters (and plots.) We all have some interesting people way back in our family trees! I’m using four of my ancestors as characters in my current project. Although I didn’t know two of them, there are many in the family who remember them and can answer any questions I have.

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