From the Imagination to the Page: Character Creation

08 Dec

I recently read a blog post, on character lists, that got me thinking about how I (and other writers/aspiring writers) create and develop fictional characters.

If you’ve never seen a “character list”, it’s basically just a run-down of various traits, generally reserved for the main (and repeating secondary) characters in your story.  These sheets usually have everything from a particular character’s motivation, to the color of their underwear.

I’ve read the advice in favor of character lists.  So, I tried my hand at throwing a few together.  Epic failure on my part.  There was no way!  Maybe after I wrote the book and had a better understanding of the character, but no way before hand.

So, what happened?  I had the pleasure of feeling bad about my inability to determine what my protagonist most enjoys for breakfast, prior to beginning my rough draft.

But then I took a chill-pill (cotton candy flavored).  I reminded myself that no one method is the right method for every single writer on the planet.  And I realized that, for me personally, I don’t really know my characters until they pop out of my head and onto the page/screen.

Oh, I may think I know a particular character.  But, I’m usually wrong about that.  Everything I outline ahead of time, or am inspired to write about, or think about a particular character — all of it — is subject to change, as I pump out that first draft.

I suppose it’s a bit like being possessed or insane.  Yes, I hear voices (no, I don’t need medication thank you very much!).  The voices of my characters speak through me.  I actually hear them in my head as I tell a story from their perspective, or type out their dialogue.  I’ll get into a character, very much like an actor must have to, in order to play said character in a believable way.  Perhaps there is a certain level of insanity in any artist, of any medium.  But, it’s the kind of insanity that’s fun at parties, so I’m cool with it.

But, I can’t get into that character until I start writing him/her.  So, I never know, until after I’ve already started writing it all down (poorly or otherwise), exactly who a character is.  I need to hear them first, meet them, get to know them, be intimate with them (don’t make everything sound so dirty – that’s not what I meant)…. Until I start writing them, who knows if they even wear underwear, let alone what color it is!

Besides, people are complicated creatures.  There are so many different facets of our personalities, how do you summarize who someone is on a single sheet of paper?  Sure, I could tell you what my favorite color is… today. But, tomorrow, perhaps my mood will have shifted my favor in that department. My reactions, my motivation, my priorities could all change dramatically, based on my situation at the time.

If I want my characters to be believable, I have to assume they’re at least as complex as I am!  Maybe the antagonist starts with a particular motive in mind, and maybe that changes later on in the story.  What do you do with your character sheet now? Perhaps my protagonist will start off sunny, cheerful, and stuffed with grape-flavored bunny farts, then become pissed off enough to start cursing, hate everyone, and open a can of whoop-ass! What?  I’ve had those days.

So… character lists… are they worth the paper they’re printed on? Do they work for some writers?  I’m sure they do.  Like I said, no one method is the right method for every writer on the planet.

I can see the appeal of keeping an on-going, ever-changing sheet of character traits.  You know – something to keep track of what you’ve already written down about the character(s), just so you can remain consistent with certain things, for sequels and what-not.  Heck – I may even do that myself.  I haven’t yet, but I might.

But, do you really need to know every single detail about your character(s), before you’ve really met them?  I don’t know, to me that sounds a bit boring, honestly.  I don’t want to know everything about a person before I’ve met them.  And, I don’t want to know everything about a character before I start writing about them.  I rather enjoy the process of allowing them to speak through me.

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Have you tried character creation lists?  Did they work for you?  Did they maybe give you something to work with, even if everything on the list was subject to change as you wrote?  How do you handle creating your characters?


Posted by on December 8, 2011 in All, Writing


Tags: , , , , , ,

4 responses to “From the Imagination to the Page: Character Creation

  1. Patricia

    December 8, 2011 at 7:41 am

    I do it your way – characters appear in my head from nowhere, I hear voices, I begin to write and get to know them. It works fine for me.

  2. August McLaughlin

    December 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I’ve doodled brainstorm lists of character traits and scenarios, but like you, I enjoy discovering their ins and outs while writing. Some of my best characters have popped up spontaneously during the process–wouldn’t want to give that up!

  3. A. W. Omyn

    December 9, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    At least I’m not alone, Patricia and August. lol.

    In the novella I’m currently writing, both the main female characters threw me for a loop when their personalities started to develop on the page. I walked away from the computer thinking, “Well now, not really what I was expecting from them, but I like it… cool!”

    Then my fiance asked me, in reference to one of the characters, “Hmm, that’s interesting… Why did you choose to make her like that?”

    And I said, “I didn’t choose anything! That’s just who she is! I don’t yet know why that’s how she speaks, acts, feels, etc. – ask her.”

  4. ottabelle

    December 12, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Usually, I sit down and just start writing. My stories write themselves, my characters know who they are and tell me who they are.

    Sometimes, I make vague character ideas if I’ve got an idea for a story that I’m not ready to sit down and start writing yet, but I don’t want to forget the idea.

    Most often though I’m like you and the character and story know what it wants to be and I am just the vessel to get it out. And that’s how I like it.


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