Where Characters Come From

I doubt any writer can deny that each of their characters bears some small resemblance to a person or persons the author has met. I’ve never actually taken someone I know and plonked them into the middle of my work, but I may have mined their personality for some nuance I might bestow upon a character.

And boy, do we do meet characters in our lives? Some years ago, on a residential writing course, I kept a journal because I thought it would help the writing flow. I discovered this journal recently and have plucked from it comments I’d noted on the people joining me on the course. I’ll share them with you here. Names have been changed to protect the libelled.

Kevin: I walked into the kitchen when I arrived, to find a chap sitting on the table, drinking coffee. “I’m Kevin, who are you,”  he said. “Rosie” I replied, after which he checked the delegate list and kindly provided me with my surname. At the group introductions, he treated us to a potted life history and précis of three novels he’s written. A leading publisher has promised to publish if he can just get his hero right. Which, bearing in mind the novels are partly autobiographical, probably means we’re safe.

Jolly Jim from Glasgow: “my life’s a comedy drama, you’d be amazed what happens tae me!” Oh – and he’s told us. He is quite entertaining – in small doses – and has plenty of charm but overly interested in talking about himself.

Anne: who Jolly Jim has christened June Whitfield. Suffice to say, when I went into the kitchen at seven o’clock this morning, for my first brew of the day, the two of them were already head to head over a pot of tea and she was sharing her life history with him. I stuck around for the death of her first husband, killed by a drunk driver (he may have jumped) through her late education and remarriage, to her early retirement due to illness.  I didn’t stick around for the prognosis, but no doubt I’ll have it by the end of the week.

Sue: who, at breakfast, very quickly got onto the topic of what she likes to write and in some detail. I left the kitchen with a mouthful of toast. I had to stuff it in there to keep me from screaming.

Briony: offers more hope. She works as a script editor. She’s funny and spare with her words of wisdom, and the only one not to bore the arse off me.

Laura: Laura is a charming lady, wheel-chair bound with multiple sclerosis and well-stocked with cannabis, apparently. She might prove rather popular as the week progresses.

By Wednesday, Kevin and Jolly Jim, had jacked it in – much to the relief of all concerned. Kevin had become weirder and Jim less Jolly. Kevin terrified Briony when he said he could read a lot about her from her retina – and proceeded to do so. Not-so-jolly Jim, who had a fund of anecdotes he was hell-bent on sharing, left because he said wasn’t getting anything out of the course. He thought the tutors were all “me, me, me”.

Apparently, when Kevin told the tutors he was leaving because the course wasn’t helping him, he said, “I feel like I’m walking away from a £200 whipping!” The tutors looked suitably non-plussed so he added, “Come on, we’ve all done it.”

“Yes but never paid for it,” they replied.

* * * * *

Although life is full of people who are even-tempered and possibly even a tad dull, it is essential that your characters are not; unless dullness is a trait you wish to emphasize and develop for contrast or humour.

Many books have been written about developing characters, and I’ve dipped into a few. I’m particularly fond of studying star sign traits to add consistency to some of my characters’ personalities.

In case you might be interested, two books I often refer to when developing characters are: A Writer’s Guide to the Zodiac by Giselle Green and The Character Map by Laurie Hutzler – an excellent guide for mapping a character’s emotional conflicts and how those tensions lead to their transformation.

6 thoughts on “Where Characters Come From”

  1. Sounds like a few writing courses I’ve been on, Rosie! Aren’t us writers a wonderfully varied lot? Makes me feel quite nostalgic – always get some people you’ll stay friends with for life and others you can’t get away from soon enough. I think the ‘real’ writers are often far more interested in others (for the reasons you’ve espoused above) – we learn a lot more about people (potential characters) by listening than by talking about ourselves! Thanks for the plug re my Zodiac book, by the way – I’m glad you find it useful to dip into xx

    1. Giselle, I always like to decide on an astrological sign for my key characters and try to keep their attributes consistent with the sign. And you may be right, perhaps real writers are much too busy observing others to spew out their life history. Perhaps, even, real writers feel their own lives aren’t interesting enough to share so that, in turn, drives them to create new realms to inhabit in their imagination… Oo-er, now I’m displaying my armchair psychology.

  2. Hi Rosie – I find reality TV programmes can be useful in creating characters. They’re all larger than life there but that can be an advantage when trying to create someone from nothing!

    1. Excellent suggestion, Cara, and what a great excuse for watching all those programmes my other half refers to as ‘Twaddle’. Now I can officially call it research.