Perhaps I am fortunate in that I have never created a character from scratch. I once took a workshop at a small writing conference where we built characters from scratch. We started with physical attributes and appearances, then we dug into conflicts and personality. I think I even included the characters astrological signs. Fun workshop, but I don’t write that way.
Many writers over the years have told me that their characters come to them fully-fleshed out. Some characters even bring their stories along, but not the plots. True, even the flesh and blood characters come as new friends or adversaries that you get to know little by little. Sometimes in the middle of writing a story, a character confesses a secret he or she has been hiding. In my case, my character Lucy Yakamoto told me that she thought she was a lesbian so of course, I had to go back and rewrite the story prior to her confession.
Oddly, once I did that, Lucy wrote her own story while I just typed along blissfully and sometimes with some consternation. You want me to write what? Wow, there goes my reputation as a writer!
My first novel, (yet unpublished), Super-Nature Heroes features real life saints as magic realism characters. This story came about when I was in the midst of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” program. I sat down one morning to write my three daily pages, and Saint Francis of Assisi showed up and gave me a what if statement. “What if I reincarnated in modern Manhattan and married Joan of Arc?” Thank you Francesco for dropping that delicious idea in my lap.
As the weeks flew by, the saints appeared with their myriad of stories and we (I had some help), wrote the novel 3 pages at a time and if you do the math, you will figure out that the novel only took several months to write the first draft. Typing the longhand took much longer and blogging early drafts, even longer. The real work, fixing the grammatical problems, cleaning up the plot, adding some new chapters, etc…took several years.
The characters Agnes Cass and Yves Gervais came to me when I found a submission request for a short script taking place in Paris. I believe that the requirements included one American and one French character. While the characters came to me in 3-D form, I still needed to research Pablo Picasso, Paris, San Francisco and then I brought in the circumstances to bring the two characters together. Magically, the supporting characters came to me fully fleshed out too. I saw them as cinematic versions in my mind. This magical stuff which is what keeps me in this chair writing stories.
Some times, I feel like a huge party is going on in my head with my characters (from novels, scripts and short stories), networking with each other. I wonder what stories could derive from this mix and match. Send all your characters to the same party and see what transpires.
How do you attract flesh and blood characters as opposed to building them from scratch?
- Go for walks and observe the world around you
- Ride public transportation and listen in on conversations
- Do dream work and ask that your muse (or whoever) bring you characters
- Use your imagination–go to a party and who do you meet?
- Pick a story or plot and see who shows up to star in it
- Network with your current characters and ask for introductions to their colleagues, friends and adversaries
- Look among the people you know, would any of these people spark a character?
- Write morning pages and once you get all the yucky stuff out of your system, see who shows up.
If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comment section. And start meeting your future characters.