I feel as though every story I’ve written is born out of this sentence: “Wouldn’t it be cool if (insert) happened?” I get jazzed, if you would, about the chain of events that lead up to this super cool thing in my imagination. But once I have this part down, it’s time to get to work and choose a victim for my story.
The more difficult part for me is trying to decide on the “who”. Thinking up characters was the hardest part of growing into a storyteller, and thinking up good ones is currently my biggest problem. I punched out one cardboard character, then another, then graduated to writing about people with the personalities of wet rags.
What helped me the most in this aspect of my writing career is the realization that I’m writing about people. Guess what happens when you open the door to your writing area and look outside. You guessed it. More of them. They’re everywhere, people. In the streets, in cafes, in discount stores—just waiting to be picked apart and used as building blocks for other, fictional people.
Most of the characters in my stories are Frankenstein’s monsters. They’ve been put together from little parts I collect from different people and from myself. They’ve been made into something new.
I once read an article on the dreams we have about people we’ve never met before. It said that these strangers were just bits and pieces of the faces and personalities of everyone we’ve ever met. I don’t know how much I agree with that science, but it’s perfect for writers. Create your characters the same way. A little bit of your grandfather’s sense of pride, your sister’s curiosity, your barista’s looks; sugar, spice, and everything nice, and BAM! You’ve got a character for your story.
If you want an exercise to help you along, here is a suggestion: Go find a park bench, café table, whatever—as long as it’s public. Take a pen and paper. Find a suitable subject. Really focus on what that person is made of. How do they move, and what might that say about their personality? If they’re speaking, what kind of person talks the way they talk? Don’t write anything down yet — that would be creepy. Instead, use the image of this stranger and your idea of their personality to write a quick scene from their life. Throw this person into a compromising or interesting position and see how they fare on the page.
If you fear the greater public, write about someone you know well. Explore the ins and outs of their mind. What we’re looking for here is not a description of a person’s looks — that’s the most boring part of a person. We want to create a personality, someone our readers feel could actually exist. We remember feeling connected to characters from our favorite books, and it’s because we can relate to those characters in some way.
Writers capture life. Even the foreign worlds we create show some resemblance to what we know. Your characters should also be captured from life, in whole, or like Frankenstein’s monster, in small parts. Practice filling out their personalities and quirks until you can do them justice. Your readers will thank you for it.
And whatever you do, never stop writing.