Writing without characters is like riding a bike without wheels, you won’t get too far. Sure, there are pieces out there that have limited characters, but they at least have one aspect that has to do with the development of a personality or skills. Look at Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E. There is no dialogue for the first half of the movie, but Wall-E and Eve have personalities and show some growth before the rest of the characters are introduced.
Characters are easy for some people, and difficult for others. Depending on the piece, characters could come easily, or they could hide from you for the first ten or more pages. I have had several experiences with characters, from my first story with the protagonist that had more than ten names, to my most recent characters who grow and become more alive with every new draft of my novels.
So this first installment we are going to talk about finding characters. So let’s jump to it, shall we?
Depending on what your current project is, you could already have your characters. If you write fanfiction, which is writing based on someone else’s characters and setting, you already have your characters. If you are writing from scratch, you might not have any characters, or maybe just a few.
How you find characters will depend on if you have an idea or not. Sometimes characters, or their names will come first, and then their plots or ideas come after. Sometimes you have the idea and you just want to shake your character and scream at them “Tell me your name!”. Either way, I would like to believe characters want to be discovered.
With an Idea
If you started with an idea, I think the task of finding characters is easier. With an idea, and whatever parts of a plot you already have, fitting a character where they are needed becomes a bit easier. For instance, say we have the idea for a plot surrounding a bank robbery. The character we need can either work with the idea surrounding a bank robbery or be against it. What I mean by that is: Our character can have several personalities depending on the plot. Is the character part of the robbery, or just in the bank when the robbery starts? Does our character try to stop it, or just cower in the corner, crying for their mother? Make the character fit what you need the character to be.
An example that I have used in the past is the Camp NaNoWriMo April session. I was writing a novel based on someone falling into the addiction of drugs. I could have gone the easy way and said the character was male, twenty-four years old, was traumatized as a child and addicted to alcohol, but that is what readers would have expected, that seems to be the stereotype of drug dealers and users. What I ended up doing instead was making her female, type A, in medical school, and selling drugs without using them. This made her interesting, and went against all stereotypes.
Without an Idea
Coming up with characters on their own is definitely hard. Without the backbone of a plot, characters could be anything. Sometimes, characters come to me with their full names and their stories, but most of the time it’s like an awkward first date trying to pull information from them. There have only been a few instances where I come up with the character before the idea.
One of them is Georgia Rose Howell. This is a name that came to me in a flash of inspiration without an idea attached to it. I have tried several times to add her to other working ideas, but she refuses. She seems to be holding out for her own work, but she won’t give me any more information than just her name. She’s like Groot in that way.
Me: What’s your story?
GRH: I am Georgia Rose Howell.
Yeah, eventually I’ll find a place for her, but for now, she’s just a fancy name.
Next week, we’ll talk about naming characters and bringing them to life.