Story Hospital

#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.


Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on PatreonGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!