Character Ideas

Where do you gather ideas for your characters? I remember the days when I use to sit around on the bleachers during Reading Period before Physical Education with a sheet of paper jotting down ideas. People played a crucial role in my character developments because I’d base personalities on those around me. Since a public school has a rich environment of personalities, it was fairly easy to label someone as so-and-so in my stories. Now at days, it’s a little harder to use this trick and I’m left to alternative methods.

My previous collaborative partner gave me a piece of advice – go to coffee shops, take your laptop, order something and then sit down to listen to the conversation around you. It’s wonderfully resourceful to use this free setting, provided you get a drink, to soak up the natural dialogue and get a refresher on people’s personalities.

Is the recluse, seated in a discrete manner, by the barista’s bar throwing furtive glances her way too shy to ask her out? Is there a secret relationship between the two if the barista occasionally glances over to the recluse with a perkier-than-normal smile? What other things are going on worth covering for reflection later on? Are the two seated together looking at their phones really conversing? Are they just strangers sharing a table for a lack of space? These are other examples of language, non-verbal, that are easier to write because they don’t need an exchange of conversation for readers to follow.

How about the man drinking his coffee and writing with the other, is he trying to finish a report? Another example. While watching you can make up reasons without asking people – that’s the creative side of the process. Though in my experience I’ve found there are plenty of social butterflies at coffee shops only too willing to entertain you with some conversation, especially if they see you sitting around doing nothing. So pretend you’re working on something if you don’t want to get caught up talking!

There are so many things to see when you look around in a coffee shop, but keep in mind, try not to look suspicious, not everyone welcomes a stranger recording their interactions. Especially these days, so make sure you’re discrete!

I’ve noticed people tend to get very vocal at coffee shops, certainly when they’re friends with the owner or baristas employed there, and the dialogue flows too fast to get it all down. People bounce topics randomly as well, they always loop back to what they were originally discussing, but pairs will often dance through one reference to another as they progress, distracted by one element in the other’s conversational exchange only to realize they’re off topic and double back. Couples do this fairly often in my observation.

Those aren’t the only places to gather insight on dialogue and see the quirks of people’s personalities. You can venture anywhere you want to discover a mountain of references to help you along with any problems in developing characters, speech patterns, and mannerisms unique to them. Parks, movie theater lines, department stores, restaurants, libraries, study halls, amusement parks are all grand locations where people gather and don’t mind being overheard.

There are times I pull from my own experiences in my writing to style a character, especially the history or reactions – because I can’t say I haven’t had a rather colorful upbringing to shed some light on the weirder, funnier memories. Who else has put an Alligator Gar into a small pond in their background as a kid? How about using a cast net to catch a turtle? Going to the park to feed them Cheerios? Postured with a goose to get it to leave you alone? Caught a butterfly in a store just to release it outside? Now that one I spent a good deal running around to get!

I guess I should say my father raised me as a boy because he was hoping to have a boy. Poor dad. He got a girl instead. Can’t say it wasn’t entertaining to thwart all the little boys at school with not shrieks, but coos, when they tried to scare me with a fuzzy caterpillar. Those are the experiences that help foster believable characters, using personal back story to add depth to them. Don’t have them go on and on about their history in dialogue or character reflection, but rarely introduce pieces of it when it works according to the scene, make it tug from something you really experienced because then your words take on a new life as you detail it out.

Never underestimate your own recollections when it comes to writing, sometimes there’s a gemstone waiting to be discovered and polished.

Editing is what makes a rough character come to life! Start the writing process with a generic idea and let yourself get wrapped up in the character as you write. You’ll come to a point where, if you’re about consistency and continuity, you’ll want to smooth out rough patches during revisions. Timelines are wonderful resources for writing about a character to detail them out with a point of origin and a progression to their current state in the story. If you prefer linear stretches with simple quick bullets to tell you when things in the character’s life happened, then that can work. My favorite is a Master Sheet where I detail information about the character, use a snapshot image to help me visualize the character’s face, and special phrases they use. Included are references about the parents, siblings, concerns I have about the family structure, their workplace, schooling, quirks, hobbies, and friends.

I expand on it per character because I don’t know when I’ll need it later on, this keeps me from pausing in the writing process to create something specific in mind for them then rather than elaborating on what I’ve already written. This is where I divulge some personal experiences I may want them to have, such as the fish tale, to give them more substance as a character.

Scrivener has become a major tool for me with these sheets because of the customization it lets me use. There are also templates other people have designed specific to different types of literary writing. It permits me to create Index Cards on a bulletin board for quick references to characters, plot ideas, or the images of importance (visual references, character portraits) plus music clips that inspire a certain feeling necessary for a scene. Why is this all important when I could easily do it with multiple tabs opened in my browser? It’s all one user interface broken up, by your preference, into three panes with easy to navigate areas to switch between characters, chapters, and ideas. There are opaque stamps to remind you if something is a First Draft, Final Draft, etc. and colored labels you can specify for different things.

You have the ability to structure your writing with pre-set standards for eBooks or other publication formats. It updates after every keystroke. Maintains 5 different back up copies as you work which you can then store externally somewhere else. The entire project is stored in a main folder that is capable of being placed in your Dropbox share to work on from different locations or collaboratively. If you’re doing the writing camp online – you get 20% off, but if you complete the camp, it becomes 50% off. It even works on Netbooks, but unfortunately it has no support for Linux – which is what my Netbook runs.

For all the options it provides and securities it offers for your work, I love it. Though sometimes I get away from it and return to the age old pen and paper format. Never fails. You’ll see something you hadn’t seen before on the screen when you step away to review your writing a different way. Do what you need to in order to write!

2 comments for “Character Ideas

  1. Jon Hemphill
    May 16, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    You have some really good ideas about character buildings. I’m also impressed with the colorful childhood you’ve had. I think most people, but not all, think that they haven’t had a unique or boring childhood, when they actually have. I’m sure if I were to tell you some of my childhood stories, you’d might think they are colorful/unique, when I didn’t think they were.

    I’m really enjoying your blog. :)

    • May 16, 2017 at 1:43 pm

      It takes me a considerable amount of time to get to work on a story because I put so much effort into laying out characters before hand. There’s a lot of what I call ‘weaving’ going on before the meat of the story is pieced together to help me avoid those moments when my muse just isn’t being very helpful. Plenty more interesting moments with those, I could totally share the embarrassing leech tale some day too. Maybe. That was pretty embarrassing.

      Thank you for the comment, I appreciate feedback. And you’re right, everyone usually downplays their own childhood experiences as ‘average’, but it’s when you compare them to others you’ll be surprised! I didn’t learn how to ride a bike without training wheels until I was twenty six years old. Most people know how to ride by their late teens! By that same token, most people couldn’t tell you how to properly bait a hook, yet I can. ;) Feel free to share them with me sometime! I’d love to hear what childhood stories you have!

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