Characters in Search of Me

By Julie
Overlooking Boston

Since Edith talked about setting yesterday, I thought I would talk a bit about characters today, and how I create them. Or how they find me.

When I write a story, I think of the plot first. For instance, a woman killed her husband, and is being confronted by his mistress the day after the funeral. That rattles around in my brain for a while, and then it comes time to write it down. And when I do that, the characters start to pop. So that is when I start to build up their bio–pick a name, maybe pick a photo of someone so I can describe some details. I read a book once that suggested a really in depth character bio before writing the story. I tried, but it doesn’t work that way (for me). I need to write around them for a while, and let them tell me their stories.

I know, I know. That sounds a little nuts, doesn’t it? But that is how it works. They start telling me what they eat, what they wear, their size, their shape, their housekeeping habits. The more I write, the more the details. I may not find out their love for blue cheese and chocolate paninis until page 200, but once I find out, I write it down and add it back at the beginning later. [Note: Scrivener is a great for this. It has a character bio form that lives on the left hand side of the screen, and is a repository for details. By keeping that up to date, you never have to wonder what color his car is again.] The more I write, the richer the details. And they have a different impact on the plot itself.

Have you ever seen the play Six Characters in Search of an Author? I am currently working on a new manuscript. I have left version 23 of a very different novel behind. But the characters aren’t going quietly into that good night. As I work with my new characters, and get to know them, my Trevorton characters keep showing up. I have decided to keep them separate, just in case I ever go back to that series. But I find it interesting that they keep rattling around my imagination. Am I doomed to have them live there forever?

All of my blog mates are writing series, which means they have a whole cast of characters to create. This is what people love about series mysteries–getting to know a community. All of these characters have their own backstories, and will likely play roles in future books. Maybe significant roles–as either victim or murderer. Deciding who to make a recurring character, and who will be a one off, is an interesting choice. I just wonder if it is the choice of the author, or of the character herself?

Writers, how do you create your characters? Readers, how do you feel about series characters? What makes you want to get to know them?

10 Thoughts

  1. I have to start using that Scrivener feature! Sometimes for me a character arrives full blown, and sometimes they evolve. Occasionally I’ll add a trait or occupation to a character on purpose to make them more fully developed. The bad guy likes to contra dance and is very sweet to his mother. The protagonist’s best friend has a bad addiction. The victim who was tyrannical and irritating to humans was very kind to small animals.

  2. Julie! How heartening to find someone who’s published, who is not comfortable with the ‘rule’ that you have to know everything about your character before writing the story. I was also delighted to read that you come up with the plot first, and then populate it with characters. I’m going to print this out and sit it by my computer, and ignore those who tell me I’m doing it wrong! Thank you for reminding us that this is not ‘one size fits all’.

    1. Thanks for this post! I always need to remind myself of this as well–there is no right way to write. And while we talk about plotter v. pantser, and writing in order or not, building characters and setting aren’t spoken about as much. Glad to know there is someone else out there who works like I do!

  3. I would think it would be very hard to have a character fully developed before you write a story. To me, and I am not a writer, just a reader, the characters would have to develop as the story does. After all, don’t we as people develop as our lives develop? And I do like series where you can see where the characters’ lives take them and how they continue to develop. Stand alone stories can be sad when we have no more interaction with characters we have gotten to know in a story.

    1. I agree about standalones, Elaine. And you aren’t JUST a reader – you are one of the main reasons we write – for people to read!

    2. I agree about not wanted to say goodbye to characters. I always feel that way when I read an Anne Tyler book. I hate to say goodbye.

  4. I find that, especially with secondary characters, I learn about them as I work through the novel. This past week I introduced a new character that I’d originally thought was cool and aloof. She proved herself to be quite the opposite, much to my delight. I’m loving where she’s taking the story.

    I’ve enjoyed reading all these posts ~

  5. Julie, loved this post and hearing how your characters come to life. I always feel like I have to know a lot about them before I start writing, and I have done those major bios as I prepare to write a new story. Maybe I should be a little less rigid with myself and let them talk to me next time I’m starting something new. Thanks for giving me “permission” to do this!

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