How I invent characters

Image credit: robynmac / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: robynmac / 123RF Stock Photo

Characters are mysterious creatures, in a way, and I’m sure there are nearly as many ways to invent them as there are authors.

For me, I find that they seldom spring fully formed onto the page, but come to life in bits and pieces. I’ll hear the voice first, generally. What they say, and how they say it, and what they don’t say, but only think, all of which tells me a lot about who they are. Especially when I put the characters in a stressful situation, one where they desperately want something, but can’t have it.

I’m extremely fond of dialog, I admit, and if you’ve read anything of mine you probably noticed. Dialog reveals so much about who we are, doesn’t it? Because really, except for ourselves, we can’t know what anyone else thinks in real life—we can only judge and know people by what they say and do.

What the character looks like doesn’t precisely come second… but parts of it can, if something sticks out. A general impression of an angular face, say. Pale eyes. A sense of a lean body… or a curvy one. But I have to say that aside from these glimpses, mannerism probably comes after voice. How do they move? What visuals am I getting as they’re there in the scene, speaking? Where do their eyes go? What is the body language?

As the dialog and the visuals merge, I begin to get a sense of the character as a person. A tip of the iceberg, if you will; a feeling for who they are, and what they’re about. In other words, I’m slowly peeling back another cornerstone of character, which is motivation and goals. I often don’t know the whole of it at this early point. For instance, I knew pretty soon that the heroine in my current book was driven by loneliness, but I didn’t know the why of it. I didn’t know why she chose that moment to go out there alone, looking for someone.

That’s another funny thing about characters. Startling ideas pop up when I write them. For example, two characters with somewhat opposing goals may be talking, and pushing each other, and through that back and forth and push, push, push, as I invent their lines, I’ll get the germ of an idea, some insight into their character, a twist, something.

This is one big reason I let myself experiment so freely with a new book, putting myself inside my characters’ skin, living the scenes as they unfold. While I’m in there, I’ll invariably surprise myself with some nugget of an idea. And that idea will be better than anything I could have sat down and planned in advance.

How do you go about inventing characters?

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