Writing advice

Characters, in a nutshell – where do they come from?

Despite what the post’s title may suggest, I’m not asking you to put your character in a literal nutshell and see what happens (although writing exercises, especially quirky ones, are wonderful tools that you should definitely do). Instead, rather like my post about settings, I’m going to take a more general look at the characters that inhabit your story; to begin by trying to find them.

Just like a book needs a good setting, it needs good characters. Without them, there would be no story. But where do characters actually come from? Where did the author get the inspiration for that character? Do authors have some mystical source where ideas spring from, or did they completely make them up without anything influencing it? It’s actually a little bit of both. I think that characters in books come from one of two places – real life, and the story itself.

The real world is a fantastic source of inspiration for your story, so if you need to add more characters then you need look no further. This can include (but isn’t limited to):

  • Strangers
    People watching is a marvellous thing. You never know who you’ll bump into in your day-to-day life, and I’m sure you’ve all experienced meeting someone that just sticks in your memory. These people are fantastic to use as inspiration for characters. Just think about it; you want your characters to leave a lasting impression, so why not write about someone that left an impression on you?
  • Friends/family
    Just like strangers, the people you do know can serve as inspiration. Maybe you have a particularly eccentric uncle? Or a cousin that always has to wear blue? These people can make good starting points, but be warned that modelling characters on people you do know can be dangerous, especially if you’re basing them on negative character traits, as there’s always the risk of them finding out. This is doubly true if you get it wrong, or exaggerate the character. So remember to keep them anonymous!
  • Yourself
    This could be one of two things; either a) you’re a narcissist, or b) you’ve had a particularly interesting life, and think it would make for a great character. The advantage with this is, unlike friends (and especially strangers), you know yourself; there’s no chance of getting details wrong, or offending yourself. Just be sure that, if you’re presenting your story as non-fiction, you can back-up what you’re saying with proof! There are many examples of authors that claimed everything in the book happened to them, only for it to be untrue.
  • Memories
    Unless, like me, you struggle to remember what you ate for breakfast today, then your personal memories – or even those of others – can be great sources of inspiration. They can be recent, or stretching back to your school years. Though, as with the friends/family section, be careful not to cause offence!

The other side to this is finding characters based on the demands of the story:

  • Characters involved in the story
    Let’s say you’re writing a romance story about an awkward love triangle. Straight away, you know you need three characters. Hurrah! As for deciding who they might be, you can look to real life examples or delve deeper into the story. For example, what if your story is about the struggles of growing up bisexual? In that case, it makes sense to make a male and female character, and then choose one for the third. In this way, the story informs you what characters you need.
  • Characters that could be involved
    Sticking with the above story idea, can you think of more characters to add to the story? What about the parents or siblings? Past partners? Childhood friends? If you’re struggling to find characters to fill your story, then take a good look at what characters are 100% necessary; I guarantee you there will be potential characters hiding somewhere that you can bring to the forefront! And if not with the story, then maybe the setting suggests characters; if it takes place on a bus, and you have characters sitting on it but want to add more people, why not the driver?
  • Characters that were involved
    While your story will focus on characters in the present, it’s important to not forget about those that came before. This doesn’t necessarily mean characters that have died, but simply who aren’t around anymore. Who were they, and it what way did they leave their mark on (for example) the setting, or the characters that followed them? In a very literal sense, none of us came from nowhere. At the very least we had parents, or a hometown, and friends, and in some way they all leave their marks on us.

There is no doubt that characters can make or break a story; it doesn’t matter how deep the issue you’re writing about is, or how shocking the twist is, unless the characters are well-written and their reactions to the world seem plausible. So doing everything you can to find them is important. But another thing that’s equally important to consider is to know when you have a bad character, just as much as a good one.

Don’t take a character and shove them into the story simply because you feel you have to. It’s fantastic if your mother-in-law used to be a professional wrestler, and likes to demonstrate her in-ring abilities at every family gathering. But if you’re writing a science-fiction novel about the discovery of a world-ending device on the Moon, it doesn’t make much sense to have the scientists dismantling the device be interrupted by getting a suplex from her. Just like in poker, it’s vital to know when to fold.

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