Character Basics – Six Places to Find Great Characters

Every story has a cast of characters. Some have huge casts like the Harry Potter series which, according to Wikipedia, has over 600 characters. Some popular stories have much smaller casts, like The Hunger Games which has fewer than fifty. The question is…how do writers come up with all these characters?

Six Places to Find Good Character Ideas

1. Yourself – look within

Every character I’ve ever created has bits and pieces of me in them. Do I set out to write about myself? Absolutely not, but it’s virtually impossible to create a character that doesn’t have some little part of you, even if it’s just that random freckle you have on your ankle or the weird whooshing feeling you get in your tummy when you get scared or surprised.

Think about your own life, your own memories, beliefs you hold, feelings you’ve had, quirks, and stages you’ve gone through.

How can you incorporate those into a character? Think about your 2nd grade self, your 7th grade self, or your 10th grade self. What elements can you use? Your life is a treasure trove of goodness, or maybe weirdness, to mine for character ideas.

2. Family and Friends – Observe people you know

Be careful with this one because you don’t want to make your super evil villain in a story so obviously based on your best friend or your mom that you get yourself into trouble.

However, the people you know best can provide some great character ideas.

Watch what they do, how they react to situations, how they dress, etc.

3. Strangers – Observe people you don’t know

Let me give you an example for this one. This summer, I stopped to grab a burrito for lunch at a fast food Mexican restaurant. I grabbed my tray and sat off to the side by myself.

Across the dining room, an older woman stood at the counter where you get straws, napkins, and drinks. She had jeans with bling on the back pockets which I found interesting for an older (sixty-ish) woman.

When she turned around, she had on an apron! She was an employee and had been wiping down the counters. Her fingers were covered with big fancy rings and her make-up and hair were immaculate. She looked like a lady you’d see in an expensive department store, bags over her arm, heading out to her BMW in the parking lot. But, she was working in a fast-food restaurant.


Then, she pulled her phone out, cocked her hip, exactly like a sixteen-year-old, and checked her texts. I spent the next ten minutes trying not to be super obvious as I studied this woman and made up a bunch of stories as to why she was working buy wellbutrin sr online australia there, dressed and acting kind of like a teen, but not looking at all like she should be there.

Yes, she probably will end up in a story somewhere, or at least pieces of her will because she was so interesting.

Watch people at school, where you work, or just out and about. See what interesting details you can incorporate into a character. Or perhaps one of these random strangers is a character.

4. Stories You Read

Shannon Hale, author of The Princess Academy and Goose Girl (among others) has built an entire writing career on taking fairy tales we’ve all heard with character types we know (princess, orphan etc.), developing the characters, and turning them into fabulous novels. Much fan fiction is based on this idea of taking stories we’ve read and loved and re-creating them.

You can also get some great character ideas from the news or newspaper. This is a little bit morbid, but you can find great character sketches on the obituary pages. And, there are often interesting characters committing crimes. If they strike a chord, populate your stories with them.

5. Plot Ideas

Sometimes as you’re writing, you’ll discover you need a new character, like a villain or a helper figure, and you know what this character needs to do or be like.

Or, you’ll come up with a great idea for a story, and you know the main character needs to be a dancer. Go with it. These kinds of characters are little gifts because we don’t have to think of them all from scratch. Sure, you still need to develop them, but your plot ideas can give you great character ideas.

6. Pure Imagination

If you write, I’m guessing you’ve had characters come knock on your psyche and say “hey, write about me.” Or, being the creative type that you are, use your imagination to dream up interesting and fun characters. To explore these amorphous beings, grab your writer’s notebook and start writing. Who appears on the page?

Put it in Action

1) Start a character list based on your observations of friends, family, and strangers.

2) On a blank sheet in your Writer’s Notebook, a new file on your computer, or (my favorite) a notebook on the app Evernote. Then, note potential characters, quirks, and details as you see them. This is the BEST way to keep them in mind when you sit down to write a new character. For example, one of my students wrapped her arms around herself when she was feeling uncomfortable. That’s a great detail that will find its way into a story.

3) Keep adding to your list. As it gets longer, you can even organize it into categories.

 Where do you “find” your best ideas for characters? Share in the comments below.

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