Fiction is about people, and a novel’s key element is characterization.
But how do you do it? How do you spawn characters? From whence do they hail? Does a doctor bring them in a black bag? Or a stork?
No, there’s no magical process involved. Just turn your mind into a net for ideas, cast it out into the waters of life and literature, and gather in the ideas that are always already there waiting to be discovered.
Ideas from Life
Have you heard of mimesis? It’s the idea that art is supposed to derive in some way from life.
“My life?” Yes, your life. “But nothing happens in my life that isn’t dull, average, ordinary, and uninteresting.”
Fluff-and-stuff. You couldn’t be more wrong. What seems ordinary to you will seem strange to someone else. And better yet, something that’s ordinary to me will seem strange when you describe it. After all, you’ll see it from a different perspective than I ever have: your own. So when you’re looking for characters, cast your net first in your own life—the people you see, the people you know, and the person you are.
Observation of Strangers
Eavesdrop shamelessly. You’re a writer, there’s nothing that’s not your business. Carry a notebook with you to record observations. Use the voice memo feature on your smartphone to catch snatches of dialogue. Whether you’re at the gas station, standing in line at the grocery store, or in a waiting room before an appointment, you’ll hear someone tell a story or express an attitude or perform some act that strikes you as funny or weird or annoying—or altogether typical. Such observations can be the root of a fascinating character. So I’ll say it again: Eavesdrop shamelessly. There’s nothing that’s not your business.
People You Know
Lots of authors use their friends or family members as models for characters. I do it myself. And why not? You know those people. You know their quirky habits, the way they talk, the odd things they do over breakfast. You know their virtues and their weaknesses.
What? You’re afraid you’re going to upset someone? You might. And the best advice I’ve ever heard on the subject is from Anne Lamott: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Can this lead to personal problems with characters “from life?” Yes, you bet it can, so use with care. Your mileage may vary.
Other people love you. But you know you. And you know you in a way that no one else ever will. And you know you in ways that you’ll never know another person. You can observe and interview others all you want, but you’ll never know what it’s like to be inside their head or their heart. People do things for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with noble concepts like “the truth.” And interview subjects? They lie. They may think they’re telling the truth, but in fact, their stories are altered by the simple fact that they’re telling them to someone else. They want you to think of them in a certain way, or may leave things out that would leave you with “the wrong impression.”
But you can afford to tell yourself much more of the truth than anyone else will ever tell you. Be willing to think the forbidden and tell yourself the unspeakable.
What if you just can’t imagine what it’s like to be a vampire filled with blood lust? Then try this: think of something you actually have done that is like what the character does. For example, the vampire’s lust for blood is analogous to an addiction, a compulsion. Do you have an addiction or a compulsion that you just can’t resist? For me, it would be smoking. Though I’ve been “quit” for fifteen years, I still feel the tug. And if I smell tobacco on another person, if I know that nicotine is in their blood, well then… Find something from your real life that is analogous to the thing in your character that you just can’t imagine, and work from that point.
Whether intentionally or not, you’re constantly drawing from memory for incidents and characters in your fiction. All of the other sources of characters arise out of memory—memories of friends and families, memories of strangers, memories of yourself at certain ages or in certain situations. Memories are distorted by time, need, and perception, but you’re the only person you will ever know from the inside. Your fiction, when it shows other characters from inside, is going to reveal yourself. Whatever obsessions you have, whatever memories are most important to you, they’re going to show up in your work. Memory is a deep well from which to draw, to be sure. But the danger of drawing from it is that you’ve only lived the one life: the same incidents and attitudes will keep coming up over and over again. This is the stuff from which personal clichés are made. You have to make a conscious effort to keep from remembering the same things in the same way. Even when you draw a character directly from yourself and some particular time in your life, you still have to invent the character—ask the causal questions, interrogate this “new” character, exaggerate, and twist.
Ideas from the Story
Sometimes as you work on a story, characters will suggest themselves. This is what happened with many of the characters in A Merchant’s Tale.
Who must be there?
The story of A Merchant’s Tale evolved out of the world-building exercise that produced the Kingdom of Droma. I’d done the easy part: developed the geography, the climate, the seasons, even how magic worked and how many people lived in the kingdom. But as Robert Frost once said, “way leads on to way.” I found myself asking questions like: “How do these people survive? How do they make a living? If you’re not a member of the King’s Court, what do you do with your days?”
The story idea and the setting imply certain characters, but odds are that Joe Average Citizen of Droma has never traveled more than maybe twenty miles from where he was born, and most years he doesn’t leave his hometown at all. I wanted to explore the lives of people across the whole kingdom. Who (outside of the king’s court) has the best cross-sectional view of life in these parts?
Two answers emerged: a priest who deals with the spiritual needs of all the people, and a trader who deals with their economic needs.
Sometimes the basic idea of a story requires certain people to be present. Once you know the story roles that must be filled, you can create interesting, well-rounded characters for those roles.
Who might be there?
Beyond the roles required by the story idea, there are also characters who might be there simply because of the setting. Droma is an agrarian land plagued by banditry, lawlessness, and political unrest. So would our priest and our trader wander around the land alone?
The priest might, but the trader will almost certainly be fearful of bandits and highway robbery. So that suggests that there’s a bodyguard of some sort: a mercenary, hired by the trader to defend him from trouble as he travels about on business.
Who else might be there? Farmers, fishwives, shepherds, soldiers, tinkers, and tailors all come to mind. Any or all of these might be encountered by our priest and our trader as they wander about the countryside.
This is a simple way to multiply characters: Take your eyes off the main characters for a moment and see who else is standing nearby. Most of them will remain minor characters or even background characters. They needn’t all have a name, or even a speaking part. But you can use them to enrich your story and make it more real, and they also add possibilities for conflict, complications, or sources of aid for the main characters. Some of them might even become so interesting that you have to move them into major roles in the story after all.
Who has been there?
The world around us didn’t spring into existence yesterday. That light you just switched on? Thank Thomas Alva Edison. That odd turn of phrase you always use with your kids? Thank your mom. The same applies to your story. What characters from the story’s past are no longer around, but have helped shape the characters who are present?
For example, the trader has a mother. She is far away in the world of the story and never appears in the flesh, but his memory of her has a profound influence on him at several moments in the story. His story might even have been impossible to tell if I hadn’t dug into his past to find the characters buried there.
Servants of the Idea
I started A Merchant’s Tale with a story and a theme in mind: to take a journey that explores the common lives of the people and to touch on issues like immigration, refugees, and trade relations. Many wise and concerned people have found these issues to be worthy and important, so why not me?
But was I setting out to write a polemic or a story? Could the trader be a hardhearted, penny-pinching, inhuman monster without compassion, interested in only turning a profit?
Maybe. But if that’s all he is, the story won’t get very far, and whatever argument I have to make about the relation between economics and compassion might sit well with those who already agree with my point of view on such things. But what about those who don’t already agree? If all the businessmen in A Merchant’s Tale are inhuman monsters without a shred of compassion, will the story convince any actual business-people that they should be more compassionate?
Not likely. Why? Because business-people themselves are human. They have children who need to go to school. They have mortgages that need to get paid. They have sick relatives in elder care situations. They are people, stumbling around in the dark without the owner’s manual, just like you and me. If the characters are too one-dimensional to be believed, the story won’t persuade anybody who doesn’t already agree with its premise.
For the story to work, the characters have to be more than just caricatures; they have to have concerns beyond the story’s themes. The priest has to have spiritual concerns, the trader has to have a family somewhere. They each need to have goals and motivations of their own that have nothing to do with the story.
Persuasive writing only works when it doesn’t feel like propaganda. The audience has to feel that you’re being fair to people on both sides of the argument. You have to show all the characters as human, with all the virtues and flaws that condition implies. This is what makes characters trustworthy and believable.
And that’s nine ways you can find characters for your own stories. So mend the net of your mind and cast it wide; I’m sure you’ll pull more characters up from the abyss than you thought possible.
To receive free fantasy fiction, writing tips, and author updates delivered direct to your inbox ahead of publication sign up here.