#14: Where Do Characters Come From?

Dear Story Nurse,

A recurring problem I encounter in my writing across the board is that I’ll come up with very cool ideas for worlds and settings, but then become completely stumped with inventing characters and stories for them.

I’d hazard that part of this problem stems from the fact that I come from a fanfiction writing background where characters are pre-supplied, though I’ve been working on original stories for several years now. I’ve got no problem worldbuilding, either in an already-extant canon nor an original world of my own.

When I have a story idea come to me already with characters and rudimentary plot, I’m fine—the problem only shows up when I have a world but no story, and then I find myself stumped, brain running in circles as I try to force a plot to happen. I sometimes feel like I’m just picking random plots out of a hat and trying to paste them into the setting, which is obviously not ideal—the plot should be just as interesting as the setting.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to work on these issues, or how to apply the creative juices from worldbuilding to character/plot development? Helpful writing exercises?

Thank you so much!

—Plotless (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m coming back to writing after a bit of a hiatus. There’s lots of general skills I’m working on, but most of them are improving. Except for character creation. I used to write original characters all the time as a kid, but I seem to have forgotten how.

I have an idea for a portal fantasy story (probably novel length). I’m really excited about it, and the general world-building is going really well, but I’m struggling to actually start the first draft, because I can only come up with really vague idea of the characters I’m writing about. Conventional advice according to Google is that if I start writing my characters will develop over the course of the first draft, but I can’t develop them enough to figure out how to start.

Is there some way to push through this and get my story started? Or is there something else I can do to get a grip on my characters before I start?

Thanks very much,

Character Catch-22 (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing scifi/fantasy fiction for fun since I was a kid—for fun, and for sharing with my friends. But recently I’ve been finding a lot less fun and a lot more frustration, because everything I write kind of peters out, and I’d really like, just once, to actually finish something.

I’m one of those people who gets super into worldbuilding. I have stacks of notebooks filled with little ideas, or bits of description, or pages and pages of how this alternate universe could work. Basically, if I were writing an encyclopaedia, I’d be golden. But an encyclopaedia does not a story make, and I want to write something someday that someone might actually want to read.

I think the place where I struggle is characters. I can look at a world I’ve made, and see where the friction points are, like “well hey if that thing is banned, is there someone trying to smuggle it?”. I can look at a formal plot structure and think of things to put in the boxes, more or less. I can write the idea of a character, like where they live and how they grew up and how their background might throw up some threads that could be put into a plot. But when it comes to wants and desires and behaviours and three-dimensionality, well… I’m more likely to end up falling into an existential crisis about what I want out of life, and that helps nobody.

Are there technical exercises to help with this kind of thing? Do I just need to plough through 70,000 words with a cardboard cutout of a character and then look back and… redraft somehow? (I have actually tried that, several times, but I tend to reach a point where I just can’t find the motivation to keep writing something so flat and dull. I think I need something to break this cycle of “shiny idea!/start writing/realise the characters have no character/hit wall/feel miserable/different shiny idea!/…”)

—Dweller in the Well-Painted Doldrums (she/her)

Dear letter writers,

As you can see from one another’s letters, you’re not alone in this! I wanted to include all three of your letters because I think some comparisons will be instructive, and because you all have much more in common than you might realize. You cite different sources of difficulties with character creation: being used to working with other people’s characters, coming back to writing after a hiatus and having rusty skills, and having your own internal anxieties get in the way. But if your circumstances were strongly and significantly affecting your writing, they would affect all aspects of your writing, and you might not be able to write at all. Instead, you’re faulting your circumstances for something that’s actually about you: right now, by training or inclination or some combination, you’re much more comfortable worldbuilding than you are sitting down with some characters and turning them into real people.

In the writing manual The Plot Whisperer (which has some excellent exercises for creating characters, incidentally), Martha Alderson frequently refers to left-brain writers and right-brain writers. I think this is a rather terrible oversimplification of some commonly misunderstood neuroscience, but she is correct to observe that some writers are more inclined toward the orderly aspects of writing, such as worldbuilding, writing action scenes, and crafting plots that hang together, and some are more inclined toward the fuzzy aspects of writing, such as creating characters, expressing emotion, and making intuitive plot leaps. You might also see these groups called plotters and pantsers, or architects and gardeners, or craftspeople and artists. I would hazard a guess that you all fall firmly on the ordered side of the spectrum. And since your circumstances do make writing a bit challenging for you, you’re responding to that by sitting squarely in your comfort zone. Every writer does this from time to time, especially when starting a project, and there’s no shame in it. You just need to recognize that it’s what you’re doing, and consciously make the decision to make yourself uncomfortable in the service of your art.

The more real a character is, the more uncomfortable you will be writing them. First you’ll have to make them complicated and conflicted, which upsets your sense of order. Then you’ll have to care about them and recognize a part of yourself in them, which makes your heart vulnerable. Then you’ll have to put them through very difficult things and watch them make some poor choices, which will be painful. By the time you reach the part of the story where your character is at great risk of losing something they care about, you may well be in agony. That’s all pretty much how it’s supposed to go. It’s hard. But that emotional investment and risk on your part is what readers pick up on when they read, and what keeps them turning pages.

When I first started writing my novel in progress, I found that I kept resolving the tension. In every scene I’d set up a problem—a failing business, romantic angst, a secret in danger of discovery—and then I’d fix the problem, either by solving it (I know what will save the business!) or by avoiding it (I just won’t pursue that guy I’m interested in, and that way he won’t learn my secret). I did it over and over again and then kept wondering why my characters were static and my plot was leaden. Finally I realized that for a novel to work, the tension has to not only go unresolved but actually build. I was so uncomfortable with this. Nonetheless, I forced myself to cut the last 200 or so words of each scene. Suddenly it was a story that flowed. Some of the transitions were a little too convenient, and others left the characters and the reader hanging in a way that felt awkward rather than planned, but it was so much better. And now that I understand that those transitions need to maintain tension rather than releasing it, I can fix them in revisions.

Your approach to your discomfort around building characters should be the same: recognize it, inhabit it, listen to it, accept it, and understand the purpose it serves in the story. Just as I learned to allow my plot events to have unresolved questions in order to push the story forward, you’ll learn to allow your characters to have unachievable or self-destructive goals, broken hearts, bad habits, and other flaws that push the story forward. Through the alchemy of story, your discomfort will be transformed into your readers’ hunger for a satisfying resolution to these tensions.

One of the best things about The Plot Whisperer is that Alderson constantly speaks of the author as a character who’s on their own journey—the quest to finish the novel—and even suggests drawing up a character outline for yourself to better understand your own goals, skills, flaws, fears, and so on. She emphasizes that everything you put your characters through is something you’re putting yourself through in some way. You can’t write a redemption story without your character first committing some error. You can’t write a hero’s journey without putting the hero in danger. You can’t write a romance without the characters opening their hearts to the possibility of emotional pain. And you can’t write any of those stories without to some extent opening yourself up, taking risks, and confronting your own mistakes and regrets.

The flip side of this is that when your characters succeed despite all odds, you’ll shout and cheer; when they fall in love, your heart will swell; when they achieve their redemption, you’ll weep with relief and pride. If you’re used to writing being mostly an intellectual exercise, these deep emotions may astonish you, and then they’ll become addictive. You’ll start to write not just for the satisfaction of watching all the pieces come together, but for the passion of empathizing with your characters in both their times of pain and sorrow and their times of triumph and joy.

As you note, Dweller in the Well-Painted Doldrums, building a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional character will often lead to some personal soul-searching. If you’re trying to use writing as a way to avoid self-reflection, or if self-reflection steals all your focus from your writing, I’m afraid you’re probably not going to get very far with either. However, if you can use the writing as a way to explore your own personal concerns and anxieties, that can be helpful on both fronts. Give your character the aspect of yourself that’s causing you the most trouble, and then see how that character handles the various situations you put them in. Be as honest as possible about their actions and reactions. They may reflect parts of you that you don’t like very much. But putting that into a character who’s on a journey of self-discovery and growth—or even on a tragic path—will help you see how experiences and knowledge can shift the character’s thoughts and behavior, which can in turn help you understand how to shift your own thoughts and behavior. Develop the character who’s so much like you into someone you want to be and then use them as a role model, or develop them into someone you fear becoming and use that process to exorcise your fears. Along the way, you’ll write a gripping story about someone who feels very real, because they are.

If you’re looking for specific character creation exercises and resources, here you go:

I will note that left-brain/plotter/architect/craftsperson types love these sorts of tools because they give the impression that you can build a character the way you can build a world. To some extent, that’s true. But every golem needs a word inscribed on its forehead and every stitched-together monster needs a jolt of lightning. That final moment of magic that transforms a flat caricature into a living character comes from inside you. You will have to pay a price for this working—not in blood, but in emotional vulnerability. If you steel yourself to make that bargain, you will find it well worth the pain.

Best of luck on your quest, writer/protagonist! I believe in you.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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13 thoughts on “#14: Where Do Characters Come From?

  1. Wow, what a beautiful post. Thank you. I don’t have problems with coming up with characters, but they scare me, and actually do cause me quite some pain (worst aspect is incorporating plot changes that the characters don’t like…) . How real those characters have become to me is the most unexpected aspect about writing a novel and it is not only pleasant. They can feel like sore body parts. 🙂

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  2. Thank you very much for this, and thank you in particular for including all three letters together. I’m LW #3, and hearing that other people have a similar issue is all kinds of helpful. There’s a lot of internet out there full of people talking about how characters just waltz into their heads already living and breathing, and it’s easy to worry that perhaps the fact I struggle with characters means I shouldn’t really be bothering with writing at all.

    Some of this is hard to hear, of course, but if it were going to be an easy problem to solve, I wouldn’t have been writing to you in the first place! Leaving the comfort zone is difficult, but you’re right – it’s important. I’m going to really try keeping this in mind when I write. NaNoWriMo is coming up – what better time to try pushing myself into something new!

    (I mentioned on a previous post that I was trying out the writing-intentionally-badly thing – that is still difficult! It seems like a similar thing to this – doing writing in a way that’s uncomfortable, hopefully to overall benefit.)

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    1. I’m so glad it was useful to you!

      There are lots of writers who struggle with creating characters. Sometimes they’re even the same writers who have characters waltz into their heads; a protagonist isn’t the only person you need for most stories, after all, and if the protagonist was the product of unconscious inspiration, it can be hard to consciously craft secondary characters who feel as real. So you absolutely should be bothering with writing if it’s a thing that you want to do.

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  3. Thanks for the reply! While it definitely gave me things to think about, I’m not sure it actually helps my initial problem. See, once I have a character I love, I’m 100% okay with tormenting them, having them fail, making them miserable, and setting them up against their greatest fears. I love doing that. I love having long-drawn-out tension. Out of the characters that I’ve successfully created, plenty of them are very entertaining to read about, but would not actually be the easiest of acquaintances in real life – which to me, makes them interesting and fun characters.
    When I create an interesting world, I often want a character who is situated in a place to showcase some interesting element of the world – but then I feel like my characters aren’t actually alive, because there’s something arbitrary about them. Once the character interests me, I have no problem pouring everything into them. But just like I can easily create worlds that I find interesting and want to explore, I want to be able to create characters I find interesting and want to explore.
    If the world overshadows the characters too much, them I’m left with just a lens to show off the world – on the flipside, sometimes if I just try to invent a character with a fun story, they end up having nothing to do with the world I want them to inhabit. I’ve had a lot more success creating fancy worlds for characters that I have an idea for than creating characters for the fancy worlds I have ideas for.
    Looking at the links you provided, I think the problem may be linked to the “exotic” aspect of what Jim Butcher is talking about. The worlds I come up with tend to be very exotic, very conceptual, but then I feel like I’m left with Joe Average in a very exotic world – and I myself am not terribly interested in Joe Average.
    I’ll go through the links you provided and see if something there provides an answer.

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    1. Thanks for letting me know the answer didn’t entirely work for you, and telling me more about what you’re having a problem with.

      When I create an interesting world, I often want a character who is situated in a place to showcase some interesting element of the world – but then I feel like my characters aren’t actually alive, because there’s something arbitrary about them.

      A lot of our choices for character creation (and worldbuilding in general) are pretty arbitrary. That’s okay. And there’s nothing more true to real life than starting out as an arbitrary collection of traits, as all people do!

      What might be missing there is some sense of the ways that the character and the world have interacted and influenced each other before the story begins—that is, backstory. If you drop a fully formed adult character into a world, then sure, that can feel jarring, like having Conan the Barbarian show up on the deck of an 19th-century British sailing ship, spear in hand. But if you transplant baby Conan into 19th-century England and consider what it would have been like for him to grow up there, you can develop an adult character who’s got very similar character traits and yet is fully a part of his world. That exercise can also help you narrow down what you see as the core elements of a character. Whether in Cimmeria or England, Conan is probably going to be a handsome, self-serving rogue with a taste for adventure and a hunger for power and wealth. Those elements will just express themselves differently in different settings. (And now I’m going to think of Conan every time I read a Regency romance with a hero who’s a handsome, self-serving rogue with a taste for adventure and a hunger for power and wealth.)

      Once the character interests me, I have no problem pouring everything into them… I want to be able to create characters I find interesting and want to explore.

      Hm, this reminds me of how some people feel about writing when not inspired. There might just be times when you need to write those less interesting characters for the sake of the story.

      There might also be worlds that you create just for yourself, for the pleasure of creating them, that aren’t practical places to set stories. A planet that’s made entirely of constantly exploding volcanoes is really cool but is probably not a useful setting for an adventure. But you can worldbuild extravagantly as art sometimes, and then tone it down a bit at other times when you want to create a world that characters won’t be overwhelmed by and stories can happen in.

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    2. When you say it’s easy to create worlds, what part of the world are you thinking about? I think there are a lot of levels of worldbuilding, from the physical world, the history of the people who live in that world, the society that currently exists in that world, the institutions that exist in that society, the political system, the economic system, the groups that exist within that society, alliances between groups, specific families that exist in that world, specific enterprises and work groups, etc. And each of these influences other areas…

      So if this isn’t already something that you do, maybe you could also try connecting up whatever level of the world you like to create (and the stuff that interests you the most about your world) through some of the intervening levels to the characters that you create. That is, since no world that’s created is totally complete, look at the stuff you’ve created that’s the most interesting to you and try to expand it in a human direction, and a direction of specifics, until you can see the sort of people that would naturally live in the world you’ve created. Not really in terms of personality (there will probably be all types), but in terms of the way that they were shaped by the world, the kinds of things their world encourages them to do, the options for why they are in a certain place in the world, the choices they’ve made to get there, the things that have happened to them to put them there, whether they’ve gone with the expectations of the world or against them, what the people around them think about them… And maybe make up more than one character at a time, and let them spark off each other? Characters who have different experiences of the world, or different goals, or different values… And then think about what change might happen to these people and what that means to them and how they’d react, because stories are basically always about some kind of change.

      It is a lot of work (but so is any kind of worldbuilding), and of course YMMV, but I find this works for me (though I usually start with some character details and some world details and work both ways), and I also find that being interested in my world is being interested in my characters, because they are a vital part of my world.

      (This is sort of the same direction as the Story Nurse pointed with the Conan example, but I thought I’d share from the perspective of someone who’s also very oriented towards worldbuilding.)

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  4. Found your blog via Captain Awkward, this is interesting!

    A tool that I have found extremely powerful for creating characters along with their arcs is Laurie Hutzler’s Emotional Toolbox (published as eBooks, which altogether cost a little, but from her website and her articles you can already get the basic idea). It introduces character types as an internal logic of drives, conflicts, and strategies, and storytelling then evolves mostly out of the conflicting interests between characters you create. Rather than being simplistic (which I expected it to be when I first learned about it), this scheme of types is a simple engine that drives stories which can be as complex as I like to tell them: once you get going, you don’t see the engine under the hood anymore, but as a writer you always know where you’re going because you know the storytelling logic of the characters.

    I think this tool could be of real help to LW#3 because it is all about wants and needs of characters. If you have the world building down already, this could provide the missing link.

    Of course, this kind of conceptualization of fictional character treats characters as pawns with a function in your story and rejects claims that characters need to be ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘life-like’, which may go against other writing philosophies. (And I don’t quite know from your text, Story Nurse, where you stand on that, because you write about ‘real’ characters, but also about golems. :))

    I disagree with Story Nurse on one point: I personally think that the ‘need for soul searching’ you write about is a mystification of the writing process which can hinder writing more than it can help. If they don’t write explicitly as a form of personal self-reflection then writers are better served, I think, by detaching their selves from their stories and characters. Rather, set a small number of behavioural rules for characters and let them loose in an adverse situation, then watch the drama unfold. Characters are not about you, they are tools to create story.

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  5. It might be worth looking into the character generator for the Fate roleplaying game. Giving your characters aspects and troubles can help integrate them into the world and make them feel more lived in, and the process has more structure than just staring at the page.

    I like character creation so I spend a lot (probably too much) time on it. Here are some things I do that help me. Disregard as needed.

    I also spend (waste?) a lot of time filling out dumb “What X are you?” type quizzes for my characters. It’s interesting to see what choices they’d make that are different from me and from each other, and it can sometimes help you get to know them better and give you some random details to play with (e.g. learn what kind of underwear they wear. take the patronus quiz for them. Now they have a favorite animal. Some better quizzes can even get at values.)

    If your characters are born on earth, you can have astrological readings done for them, which you can mine for interesting back story ideas.

    You can pick an archtype for your character and then choose one major way they defy expectations for their archtype. (E.g. Tough guy who cries) See if that creates problems for them.

    Speaking of problems, having family/friends/dependant NPCs can give your characters conflict and purpose. (E.g. why is the character smuggling? She needs money to get her sister off world.)

    I also use playlists to try to understand and connect with my characters. A character who’s playlist has “dirty laundry” by Bitter:Sweet is very different from one with “The Tower” by Vienna Teng or “Riot” by 3 Days Grace.

    And if you have 4 hours, pick a work with characters you like and go down the TV Tropes rabbit hole. Find archtypes you can’t get enough of and put them in your stories.

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  6. This is LW #2.

    Not only have you given me helpful and incisive advice, but you debunked my least favourite neurobollocks myth. I thank you from the depth of my Neuroscientists heart (meaning, of course, that I thank you from the depths of my nucleus accumbens).

    I would never have got there on my own, but now that you’ve explained, I think some uncomfortable soul-searching is probably exactly what will get my novel on track.

    You are the best.

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