I’ve been asked, ‘How do you come up with the characters in your stories?’ as every writer has been at some point in time.
When I start writing a new story, whether it’s a full novel or a short story, it obviously always starts with an idea. Somewhere in my day, an idea will pop into my head – oftentimes it’s when I’m in the shower, because you know, I don’t have a notebook or my phone with me and that’s Murphy’s Law. But when that idea comes to mind, I’ll start thinking about it and working out the logistics of the story in my head. I need to get my backside to the computer or some paper before the day is out because by that stage the idea is rapidly expanding, and I don’t want to lose the inspiration while it's fresh in my mind. Usually, I’ll sit at the computer and make notes in a Word document, outlining the story idea and how the plot will develop but occasionally I’ve put ideas down on paper or my phone. I’ve even used a napkin at a restaurant one time to write a story idea down. By this stage I normally have some idea of whether this is going to be a full-length novel or a short story – most of the times in my case, it’s a novel. I tend to write full stories and struggle to keep them short. Occasionally I’ll jump straight into the story, writing the opening lines of the first chapter as it’s sometimes the opening few lines that first appear to me in the form of an idea.
When the idea has sprouted in my active little brain, I’ve already started the character development and have a fairly good idea of what role I want each character to play in the story. From the initial idea I know what the relationship between each character is going to be and the type of interactions and connections they’ll have through the evolution of the story, and I like to start with notes on each character. The basics are always taken care of first – gender, age, eye and hair colour, height, build; you know, the things that help you pick them in a line up. Next, I make note of some of their interests and what they do for a living, where they live and the individual things that make up each personality within the story. This includes personality traits, the type of voice they have and how they carry themselves through the evolution of the story. I know from the start who’s going to be the protagonist (the hero/heroine) and who will be the antagonist (the one who’s always getting up in the protagonist’s grill!). Every story needs an antagonist of some sort; someone who likes to throw a spanner in the works and go against the protagonist, making it harder for them to achieve their goal, whatever that may be. This person doesn’t necessarily have to be a villain in the traditional sense, but they make the story move forward with some interesting and relevant bumps in the road.
Character names are next. Sometimes as a character comes to life their name is there already, and they reveal it to me as I’m writing their character bio. Sometimes I’ll do a Google search for names and find one that is suitable for the personality of the character and occasionally I’ve remembered the name of someone from my childhood who I adored and will use their name. I admit I’ve even given antagonist’s the name of people from my childhood who quite frankly, were a bit of a doody-head! Amongst my library of character names I have names I planned to give to my own children one day, names I’ve thought were strong or beautiful and would suit one of my characters and I’ve researched names with specific meanings, giving them to characters who had a special purpose or meaning to the story. I’ve come across a lot of names in my life - after working in childcare for ten years, there isn’t a lot of names I haven’t heard. I admit I’ve also made up a couple of names for characters, wanting something unique and unheard of. I will make a disclaimer right here though: any character that has the name of someone in my life is purely co-incidental and you can guarantee that the character was created before the person by that name entered my life - except of course those aforementioned doody-heads.
I’d like to confess here that once my characters have evolved and revealed their personality, they’ve become like friends to me and I don’t like to change the major and important things about them as the story goes through multiple drafts. One of the things I don’t change is their name. This has come up for me recently in one of the very first novels I wrote, which has just finished going through its final draft in preparation for this particular novel being my next book released. One of the characters in this book is named Mick. Now, I also happen to have a younger brother named Michael, who back when I wrote the first draft of this book only ever went by Michael. Now however, he goes by Mick. As does my sister’s husband, also a Mick, who entered our family long after I wrote this book. So, I’m laying it all on the table right now: my Mick wasn’t named after either of my brothers. He existed to me first. I happen to love this character and know him as Mick, so his name shall forever be Mick, with no connection to the other Mick and Mick. Wow, that’s a lot of Mick!
Once all of the character outlines are done for the story, I apply their personalities and features to the story as the novel unfolds and their characters develop further. I’m not sure if all writers do this, but I admit that I do keep an open mind about the characters as they evolve and allow them to diverge off the path I originally created for them. Not completely off-track, but sometimes another side of them emerges that wasn’t there when I first introduced myself to them. When I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript I feel like I’ve really gotten to know the personalities in the story and I’m then ready to go back and dig deeper into their psyche. I recently shared a quote I found online:
"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story” – Terry Pratchett.
This quote is the truest thing I’ve found this year. When I write the first draft of my story I’m just getting to know the story, the characters, the direction where it’s all going to go. I know what the final destination is going to be; that came to me with the original idea, so I can still see the finish line. But once that first draft is complete, I find other plot ideas, little side streets where some of the characters may wander down, possibly an additional character who might make an appearance, new ideas and always, a deeper character development. The characters in my books each become like real life friends. Usually, when I’m in the writing zone, I spend more time with these characters than I do with my friends, so it makes sense that they become like people I know. And always, as each draft evolves, their personalities emerge stronger and they become more real. By the time the final draft appears on my screen, I know these characters as well as I know my closest friends and family members. I guess it makes sense that a lot of writers would have had imaginary friends as children, because we are very good at creating entire personalities and lives in our minds. I know that when I was a kid my Barbies and Lego characters had the most elaborate stories laid out for them. By the time I created their entire life and their story, I was over the game and didn’t want to ‘play’ anymore. For me, the fun part was creating the world they lived in.
When I write my leads, I always create women who are strong. I find it inspiring to read about strong women, who know themselves and aren’t afraid to take chances. I feel like women need these role models in the world and following the journey of women who are strong, independent and capable is important for the young women who read my stories. I want my leading ladies to be inspiring and respected, even if the choices they sometimes make aren’t ones that the reader would make for themselves. I believe in owning my choices in life, even the ones that didn’t pan out too well, and I like to invent women who are like-minded. The choices they make on their journey may not always be the most popular choice in society, the most moral or ethical, but in each case, they are a part of the strength of the woman in the story and something she takes ownership of on her journey. I like to challenge my characters, creating difficult experiences for them, episodes of their life that will test and try them, make them stop and re-evaluate their life and their priorities. Life is a constant challenge for each of us, so I think the characters we read about should face those same challenges. By travelling the journey with them we may learn an important life lesson for our own life, something that will help us through our own challenging times. Life isn’t all roses and unicorns and I think the most beautiful and interesting people are the ones who have faced some of the hardest obstacles life can throw at them and come through the other side as a stronger, better version of themselves, wearing their battle scars with pride.
As a reader I’ve always felt a connection to the characters of my favourite books and felt like I’m a part of their world, travelling their journey with them. Knowing how important this has always been to me as a reader, I’ve always worked to apply the same approach when creating characters for my own stories. When you turn the final page of one of my books, I hope that you’ll feel like you truly know the characters you’ve just spent time with, both the good ones and those that you weren’t a fan of. Like in real life, we aren’t always going to like every person we come across, and the same is true in fiction, but if you understood and related to someone within the story, I’ll feel like my work as a story teller has been successful.
Who is your favourite character from a book you’ve read? What makes them likeable and relatable from your perspective?
Image from Google, source www.bukrate.com