How to Build Characters in Fiction Writing – The Starting Point

By Stacy Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

When I think about good stories, stories that last with me long after the last page was turned, it’s often the characters that stick with me. I feel I could know them inside and out as much as the people in my life. What they like and hate, how they would react in any situation, and the key to their happiness.

If we don’t have good characters, it doesn’t matter how exciting the plot is, how visual the setting is, or how strong the conflict is. Certainly, all of those other aspects are important, but readers want to connect beyond them to characters. And through characters, to our humanity.

In developmental editing, I look at an author’s cast and how they interact in the story. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook a character’s usefulness. In the revision process, we strengthen motivations that were just a flicker. And sometimes a secondary character’s role can be filled by another character, and we work on trimming the cast and focusing our efforts on characters that are relevant to the plot.

Whether we're working with a story editor or not, we have to know where our characters come from in order to make informed decisions about them. How exactly do we begin such a heavy and complex task of creating characters that have to sustain a story, or even a series?

After talking to authors about their process and knowing my process, I've seen a way into this madness! I also read a great craft book by Nancy Kress that identifies where we draw inspiration from to create characters. Everybody works differently, and there’s no right answer.

When Reality Becomes Fiction

We tend to write ourselves into our characters. After all, we must write what we know, and what could be more realistic than real life? Looking inside ourselves is a natural starting point, and pouring who we are into our work can create exciting, soulful characters.

We already tap into real emotions--like using a fear of spiders to describe a character's fear in a deadly chase--so why not pass on a few personality traits too? I have a writer friend who keeps a collection of characters in her mind that come from different sides of herself. In all of her stories she varies their traits here and there to reuse them.

As long as we remember that in the end we’re selling a product and shouldn't let personal defenses hold back our ability to grow and improve our storytelling.

We learn a lot from our experiences. Why not draw inspiration from them? :)

Real Person Mash-Up

As writers we tend to observe everything and everyone around us, mentally sifting for story ideas and new material. I’ve definitely been caught staring at someone from across the room (and watched them flinch away). Totally embarrassing! Little did they know I had retreated halfway into my thoughts and was not intending to stare them down. We've all been there, right? RIGHT?

However, if we plunk real people we know into our stories, we run the risk of those people recognizing themselves in our books. The way around this pitfall is to mix traits and personalities from several people we know into one character.

Perhaps you’re interested in using your mother’s loud belly laugh, your friend’s miraculous ability to dodge disasters, and your uncle’s ten-year grudge. Combining those characteristics might be the start of a compelling protagonist.

All sorts of combinations can fuel creativity and give us a starting point.

I Wonder What He’s Like

Reading about anything can spark new ideas. It’s one of the reasons writers should spend half their time reading a variety of material. If you’ve ever flipped through a magazine or scanned the news, you may have paused over an interesting-looking or sounding person on the page.

Maybe you read an article about a scientist who jumped in front of a moving train. Why did he do it? The article doesn't say, but your mind quickly supplies some possibilities. Maybe he couldn’t see his way out of a bad situation. A corporation took away his options. Did anybody care about him? A sister, who might tell his story, who wants revenge for his death, and digs deeper into the experiments he left behind…

We can let our minds spark and wander from that starting point. Before we know it, we have the glimpse of some characters and a plot.

Like Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat

The starting point isn’t ourselves, people we know, or strangers. It starts at “What if…” when we reach deep inside our imagination and form something out of nothing.

Raw creativity can seem like magic. Ideas just pop into our heads, sparked from somewhere. It’s hard to follow where they came from, but we’re chasing after them with our sleeves rolled up.

J.K. Rowling says the idea for Harry Potter just popped into her head while she was on a train.

The smallest spark can bloom into a bigger story (with much ruminating and research to follow).

Everyone Has a Story

How do we know whose story to tell? Maybe you already know that. You thought of a situation first and then contemplated what kind of characters were going to tell it.

But if you started with the characters (using some of the methods above), the plot may still be fuzzy. Everyone has a story, so the saying goes.

Back to that scientist who jumped in front of a train. There are some possible story lines to explore.

  • The sister’s POV – she knows suicide doesn’t sound like her brother at all and starts investigating what she believes is his murder.
  • The CEO’s POV – the survival of his company (and marriage) depend on his new drug passing FDA regulations, so he goes after the scientists who discovered its harmful effects.
  • The scientist’s POV – his journey of discovering the truth and trying to protect himself long enough to get the information into the right hands.

Which to tell? Whichever one interests you the most.

You’re going to be committing a lot of time to this idea, so you have to LOVE it (as Nathan Bransford says). For months you’ll ignore your family and friends, beautiful days outside, and basic hygiene for this story. So choose the one that you fall in love with, that burns inside and wants to get out.

As you build your cast of characters, see how they might connect in your story, if those connections will be plausible. The scientist, the sister, and the CEO start to connect. Things will come together because characters drive plot. And you’ll be on your way to forming your plot, too!

There's a lot of material out there about creating and developing characters. How do you start to build a character? Do you identify with any of these methods?

Stacy Jerger is a freelance developmental editor who's had the privilege of working with authors to organize and strengthen their stories. If you need help with your manuscript, check out the services page or get in touch.