Where Do Characters Come From?
When we speak of characters from a
structural standpoint, there are very specific guidelines that determine what is
a character and what is not. But when we think of characters in every day life,
they are simply anything that has a personality, from your Great Aunt Bertha
(though some might argue the point) to the car that never starts when you’re
Looking back through time, it is easy to understand how
early humans would assume that other humans like themselves would have similar
feelings, thoughts, and drives. Even other species exhibit emotions and make
decisions, as when one confronts a bear face to face and watches it decide
whether to take you on or find easier pickings (a personal experience from my
recent hike on the John Muir trail!)
But even the weather seems to have a
personality by virtue of its capricious nature. That’s why they call the wind
Mariah, why there is a god of Thunder, and why the Spanish say Hace Color, when
it is hot, which literally means, “It makes heat.”
structurally, to be a character an entity must intend to alter the course of
events, in the realm of storytelling a character is anything that possesses
human emotions. In short, structural characters must have heads, storytelling
characters must have hearts. When you put the two together you have entities who
involve themselves in the plot, and involve us in
Where Can We Get Some?
When writing a
story, then, from whence can we get our characters? Well, for the moment lets
assume we have no plot. In fact, we have no theme, no genre – we don’t even have
any particular subject matter we want to talk about. Nothing. We have absolutely
nothing and we want to create some characters out of “think” air.
starting with a name. Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens
the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.”
Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call
another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.
What can we say
about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that
matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask
questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging
out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s
obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is
Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s
physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about
hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on…. We don’t need
to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.
Does Murdock Mutter?
Next you want to shift modes. Take each question,
one at a time, and think up all the different answers you can for each one. For
Why does Murdock Mutter?
1. Because he
has a physical deformity for the lips.
2. Because he talks to himself, lost
in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his
3. Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so
he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word
in his own mind.
4. Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and
complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is
a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.
the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key.
If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you
pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you
aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can
let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the
odd variety of potential answers she brings back!
Let’s try another question from our Murdock list:
old is Murdock?
That was easy, wasn’t it.
But now, think of Murdock in your mind…. Picture Murdock as an 18 year old, a 5
year old, an 86 year old, and at 37. Changes the whole image, doesn’t it! You
see, with a name like Muttering Murdock, we can’t help but come up with a mental
image right off the bat. It’s like telling someone, “Whatever you do, don’t
picture a pink elephant in your mind.” Very hard not to.
The mind is a
creative instrument just waiting to be played. It has to be to survive. The
world is a jumble of objects, energies, and entities. Our minds must make sense
of it all. And to do this, we quite automatically seek patterns. When a pattern
is incomplete, we fill it in out of personal experience until we find a better
So, when you first heard the name, “Muttering Murdock,” you
probably pictured someone who was in your mind already a certain gender, a
certain age, and a certain race. You may have even seen Murdock’s face, or
Murdock’s size, shape, hair color, or even imagined Murdock’s
Give Murdock a Job
Now ask one more
question about Murdock – What is his or her vocation? Try out a number of
alternatives: a school teacher, a mercenary, a priest, a cop, a sanitary
engineer, a pre-school drop-out, a retired linesman. Every potential occupation
again alters our mental image of Murdock and makes us feel just a little bit
differently about that character.
Interesting thing, though. We haven’t
even asked ourselves what kind of a person Murdock is. Is this character funny?
Is he or she a practical joker? Does he or she socialize, or is the character a
loner? Is Murdock quick to temper or long suffering? Forgiving, or carry a
grudge? Thoughtful or a snap judge? Dogmatic or pragmatic? Pleasant or slimy of
Again, each question leads to a number of possible answers. By
trying them in different combinations, we can create any number of interesting
people with which to populate a story.
As we said at the beginning of the
Murdock example, this is just one way to create characters if you don’t even
have a story idea yet. But there are more! In our next lesson we’ll explore more
of these methods.
Study Exercises: Reverse Engineering
1. Pick a favorite book, movie, or stage play. Make a
list of all the principal characters.
2. For each character, list all the key
bits of information the author reveals about that character, as if you were
writing a dossier.
3. Do a personality study of each character, as if you
were a criminal profiler or a psychologist.
4. For each item you have noted
in your dossier and profile, create a question that would have resulted in that
item as an answer. In other words, play the TV game Jeopardy. Take an item you
wrote about a character like, “Hagrid is a large man, so big he must be part
giant.” Then, create a question to which that item would be an answer, for
example, “What is this character’s physical size?”
5. Arrange all the
questions you have reverse engineered in an organized list to be used in the
Writing Exercises: Creating
1. Arbitrarily create a character name.
your list of questions from the Study exercises to ask information about this
3. Come up with at least three different answers for each of the
4. Pick one answer for each question to create a character
5. Read over the list and get a feel for your new character. Then,
swap out some of the answers (character attributes) that you included in the
profile for alternative answers you originally didn’t use.
6. Keep swapping
out attributes until you arrive at a character you really have a feel for.