“She Would Never Wear That!” And Other Statements on Creating Character

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“No, no way!” I thought as I grinned at the image on my computer screen. Frilly pink bows, lots of lace, roses, and massive amounts of fabric swathing the form of a girl. I had lowered her eyebrows to mimic the scowl that I knew would be filling her face if she was a real person. “No, she would never wear that!”

What you are witnessing is a look into the creation process of a writer. More specifically this is the process of creating and defining the people who make up my stories and books. This is the birth of a character.

Most of my time in the prewriting process is spent on my character(s). Once I have some idea of who I’m working with the story can take off from there. Sometimes I don’t even know what exactly is going to happen in the book, I only know that this interesting person will take charge and hopefully make things interesting by the end.

So how does one go about creating character? Well, the creation is far from easy. I usually start with physical appearance. Once I get down the four basics of skin color, hair (color, length etc), eyes, and height I usually have a start. After I have those I like to google some images to give me inspiration for what other distinguishing features the character might have (this, my dear friends, is why I have hundreds of pictures of strangers on my computer…just in case any of you looking over my shoulder have ever wondered). Sometimes I won’t figure that out til a few months down the road though when I notice someone in my life with a certain feature I like.

Of course all of this is sometimes changed when I come up with a name.

I am usually very careful in the choosing of my names. There was only one protagonist I ever slapped a name on without consideration and it turned out to work (only by God’s help my guess). Even so most of the time I spend a while researching, looking up ideas for what would be best. There are some characters who I can never find names for. The process isn’t easy. The name has to sound good, it has to be appropriate to the time and place, and for me it also has to have meaning.

That is one particular issue in creating characters for me. I have to have a name that means something. My last character ended up named Nalin which means lotus. I chose it because the lotus is symbolic of estrangement from the past and forgetfulness, two things the character dealt with. The lotus also grows in murky waters, growing beautiful even in the unclean. The symbolism of that was perfect for my novel. And it served to define my young protagonist.

After name and features have been developed the character seems to start flowing on their own. Sometimes they will seem to adjust to the story a bit over time and I may have to go back and revise beginning sections (simply because I wasn’t seeing them clearly when I started writing and portrayed them badly as a result).

I talked with two of my friends who write novels as well and both of them agreed the process of creating characters can vary from book to book. Both said that names were important to them. Both agreed that characters created in role playing were often different from one just created in their own head.

So there are many ways to go about making a character and many tools to help. Need a name? One friend said baby name sites are a good way to start. I also keep a name dictionary on hand for times I don’t have internet. Appearance? Google is full of great options. I have also been investigating online “dress up” games to get me started. It has helped immensely with defining a character’s style and often those smaller features that are harder to come up with (eyebrows, freckles, ears etc). If you are more talented at drawing you may find that a good option, but my stick figures never come close to what I’m trying to show. Role playing games can also tie up loose ends and help create a well defined character.

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A recent creation of a few characters

There is one last tool I only recently discovered. And that is self.

Just a few days ago someone was asking me about my characters and how much they are based on myself. Though most of my characters were a direct “no” to the question if they were based on me, there were a few who made me hesitate.

One of the books I finished had a lot of basis on personal things in my life. Whether I realized it or not the characters inner dialogue reflected a lot on my own thoughts and feelings. Some lines from the book were identical to journal entries a few years before.

I think this is an important tool a writer can use. The two other writers I talked to also admitted to sometimes using self for a basis. Our own experiences are often some of the most powerful. Our emotions are often the most real. And for that reason I think sometimes picking an experience or a trait from yourself for a character is not really a bad idea.

So, just a basic overview of all the possible ways to get those lovely people in your books to come to life. Hopefully using these methods will cause the character to start developing a mind of his/her own. Do any of you other writers have your own ways of finding your characters? Feel free to share. I love hearing new ideas.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““She Would Never Wear That!” And Other Statements on Creating Character

  1. I appreciate your process. I have pictures of actors I have seen that help me picture a character’s emotions, description, or to keep me away from every character looking like a model.
    I am also very picky about my name choices. I like Celtic names as well as taking someone’s name (real life person I know) and playing with the letters to see what I can come up with.

  2. I found it interesting to read that you put so much thought into characters’ names, because I am the same way. Granted, I don’t write a whole lot of fiction, but I have played many video games which involve a significant amount character creation, and thinking up a good name always takes up about half of the entire process. I think you’re onto something with the idea of self. In the video we watched in class a while back, Ray Bradbury mentions that all his good stories are based on some sort of personal narrative or metaphor. It makes sense: the story we know best is our own, so of course the stories we create we be most meaningful if grounded in our lives.

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