I love characters. I love coming up with their names. I love discovering their quirks. I love finding out how they act when thrown into a problem that i have invented for them. It is a powerful feeling to determine the destiny of a character. It is godlike.
Names | When deciding what a character will be called, I consult a few different sources. If you don’t have a good Baby Name Book, it is a worthwhile purchase. Just be careful not to leave it laying around if you are of an age or situation where getting pregnant will cause undue concern or excitement.
In addition to a name book, I have a name journal where I write down good names that I hear.
If you are at a complete loss, try a phone book (the phone book companies just keep cranking them out for some reason, so we might as well use them for something, right?).
Quirks | Sometimes, a character’s name will suggest the quirk. When I came up with the main characters for my anthropomorphic flash fiction series, Thom and Tom, I was focusing on the different spellings of the shortened name for Thomas. In Thom, the h is silent, but not invisible. In Tom, I decided that the character would be the opposite, invisible, but not silent.
For other quirks, I just let my mind wander. I have a tendency toward the pairing of disparate things. One character that hasn’t found a story yet is an Amish man with a pacemaker. I don’t know why, but I find that sort of thing funny.
Another approach is to take a normal feature and exaggerate it. Maybe someone is abnormally tall, or super smart, or like Kurt Vonnegut sometimes gave his main characters, they have a large phallus (You never know who’ll get one).
Last, you can always base characters on real people, or a mash-up of different people that you actually know. Just make sure that they either don’t mind you using their likeness, or that they will never see your fictional treatment of them.
Situations | Once you have a group of characters, invent a situation for them. I know that everyone’s writing practices are different. Because I am character focused, I let my characters determine my plot. Others will come up with the plot and then let it determine which characters are needed, often coming up with the characters at that time. I don’t do that. I like coming up with characters too much.
When creating a situation, sometimes I just pick a few characters from my list and imagine them in the same room. How would they react to each other? What are they talking about? Is one of them the odd man out? Which of them could be a main character and which are the supporting cast? Which one is your favorite? What actual place in reality could you find this collection of people?
Once you decide on a basic setting for your characters, they will need a strong problem to overcome. Once you have setting, characters, and a problem to solve, you just have to decide how long and complex to make the story. Is it flash fiction? Short story? Novella? Novel? Maybe a Tolkien-esque tome?
Things to Remember | After they are created, let your characters surprise you. I didn’t understand this advice until the opportunity arose for me to use it. If, when writing, one of your characters says something or does something that seems unlike how you originally intended, go with it. It will likely make your character richer and more memorable, and your story will be better for it.
How do you come up with characters?