Where Do My Characters Come From?

The simplest and most honest answer to that question would be, “I don’t really know. They just come.” But let me try to do better than that.

Years ago, I learned an important lesson by reading Dick Francis’ mystery novels: Every character in your book, no matter how minor, you must view and write of as a real person. Even if the character is in the story so briefly that you don’t even have to give his name.

A common feature in a lot of books that stink is failure to observe this rule, because the author is interested only in himself. You wind up with some improbable hero or superwoman showing off at the expense of all the other characters, who are only there as stage props. Books like this should never be published, but some always make it through the net, and too bad for you if you’ve bought one.

I don’t sit down and write up a thorough biography of every character in the book. If the plot demands that someone come along to be the new captain of Lord Chutt’s Wallekki bodyguard, then I introduce a character to do just that. I give him a name. And then some funny things begin to happen.

Often, once he or she has appeared in a few scenes, I take an interest in this character. So it was with a man named Bassas in The Throne, Lord Chutt’s new captain. To my surprise, it turned out that Bassas doesn’t like Lord Chutt and has but little respect for him. As the circumstances around him changed, and he came to see more things that he hadn’t seen before, Bassas grew discontented with his lot: in fact, he didn’t much care for working for the bad guys. He hasn’t been able to shed the old tribal sense of honor that was drilled into him as a boy.

See what I mean? Bassas went on to do some things I never thought of when I first introduced him. He’s very different from his predecessor, who was a thorough-going rogue. I wonder what he’ll do next.

This all sounds very easy to do. All it takes is thousands of hours of reading quality fiction and thousands of hours of trying to write it. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, man, practice!

But it all starts with a determination to see your characters as real people. Just because they’re fictional doesn’t mean they can’t be real. They have to be, or your story won’t work.

6 comments on “Where Do My Characters Come From?

  1. Always an avid reader, my childhood was spent in books. Every week, I would bring several books home from the library. At bedtime, I would pull my covers over my head and read using a flashlight so my parents wouldn’t know I was still awake. I always loved the books that drew me in as one of the characters and where I could picture the whole story and live it in my mind.

  2. Characters really are the best part of a book, I think. Of course plot is important too, but you can have a great plot, and if the characters are dull as dishwater then the plot doesn’t count for a thing.
    One thing I try to remind myself of is that humans are complex. No one can be defined as just one thing (such as impetuous, or generous). Someone who is impetuous also has other traits that may even conflict with their dominant characteristic. When you can bring this out, in a consistent and believable way, it makes a character so much more interesting and real.

  3. Thank you! My daughter is writing a book and was just asking me whether to include another character, even though she doesn’t foresee a big role for him in the story. Now I’ll encourage her to try putting him in and see if anything develops…thank you!

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