Saturday, December 12, 2009

Finding Character(s)

I could be wrong, but let me take a wild guess and state outright that most writers are professional people-watchers. That's the case for me, anyway. Everywhere I go, I'm watching faces, reactions, interactions. It's not a conscious thing. I just do it.

One of the questions I get asked most is "How do you invent your characters?" Or, put another way, "What's your process for creating the men, women, children, and other non-humans who inhabit your books?"

My answer, truly, is that I don't know. I think of circumstances, the person comes to me, and the events of his or her life alters the perception. But, let me state again, I'm a people-watcher. I'm a people-watcher with a dash of empathy -- watching, trying to understand what's going on -- and even if ten minutes later I don't remember what I've seen, it's still in my head, jumbled around. Ending up eventually, I'm sure, on the page.

Take a look, for a moment, at the picture below. I took that just a couple weeks ago, while visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing. See that face? The expression in her eyes? The dot of blood on her tissue? Even her clothes, her jewelry. That's character. That's not an invention. That's real life.

And you want real life in your books, even if they're populated with unicorns and shape-shifters, or men who turn into wolves. You want the characters to be real -- so real they could walk right off the page (into the head of the reader).

Everyone has a different way of approaching character development and creation. Find the process that works for you. But, should you be feeling a bit stagnant, or at your wit's end, take a walk. Go to the mall, or grocery store; or better yet, any place you can sit and watch folks come and go. Look for old portraits on the internet (try Nat Love or these outlaws).

Stare into those eyes. Imagine what's going on. Build a world inside that heart.


  1. Bill Willingham fairly recently posted a list of 8 writing rules from Kurt Vonnegut.

    I liked Vonnegut because his characters were full of heart. They were broken, but didn't give up--you rooted for them. I don't know if he was a big people watcher, but he definitely captured the depths of things seen in people's eyes and in their hearts.

    I love watching people. I love listening to the way people talk. Imagining, or even seeing, what makes people tick makes me care about people. If any of that caring comes through in the things I write, I've done my job.

  2. There may be a writer that isn't an avid people watcher. Who can say in this bizarre world? But I'd venture to say that there isn't a GOOD one. This post inspires another answer to Matt's post below, about what to do when the well of words runs dry for a spell. When it does, go on a five-character walk. Take a walk (even figuratively, if you want to do it by browsing the internet, wandering into places you seldom go) when the writing hits a logjam, and stay out there until you've encountered five characters -- people intriguing enough to become a character in one of your stories. It doesn't have to be the story you're currently working on. Jot down the salient details in your handy Moleskine, and then return refreshed to your story.

    I'll bet it works.