by Orly Konig-Lopez
Who are these people who live in your head? Where do you come up with these ideas?
You’ve heard those questions a few times, right?
A few days ago I was giving someone a quick and dirty of my new book. Quick and dirty because that’s all I have at the moment—there’s only so much I can plot and plan ahead of time.
But there are a few things that I always know before starting a new project: character names, personality traits, physical attributes, career, hobbies.
1. What’s your name?
Some characters come with names. The moment they start “talking” I know what their name will be. Others require a bit of inspiration. For them I usually turn to social media. Seriously, it’s a great excuse to hang on Twitter and Facebook. Procrastinating? Nah, researching.
I scroll until a first name jumps out that will fit one of the characters. Another pass for a last name then I say the names out loud a few times for feel—some combinations click immediately, some need tweaking. When it sounds comfortable, I think about anyone I know in “real life” whose name might be too similar. And yes, sometimes I’ll use a first or last name of someone I know as a thank you nod, but the character will never actually resemble that person.
In the manuscript I just finished, the main character’s name is Maia. Why? Because I always loved that name and wanted to name my daughter Maia. Hubs nixed that name which was moot anyway because we had a boy. But I was able to have my Maia anyway—and minimal sassing back from this one.
2. Is that your natural hair color?
Every character sketch worksheet starts with a few descriptors:
- Eye color, shape, etc.
- Hair color, length, etc.
- Body build
- Unique features
It not only helps me get to know the characters, but works as a handy reference when I’m 50,000 words in and can’t remember if someone has brown eyes or green, almond shaped eyes or droopy lids, freckles or a killer dimple.
3. What’s your sign?
Okay, I don’t go down that path. But one of the first questions on my character sketch is “What makes this character interesting?”
- Did she/he have a degree in a unique field? Why did they pursue this field? Are they working in it? If not, why?
- Does she/he have a quirk or unique gift?
- What does the character like to do that would surprise those who “know” her/him?
The main character in one of my manuscripts, for example, confides in a suit of armor—an actual, metal suit of armor in a museum. When she needs perspective, she goes to the museum and talks to Sir Jean, as she calls him. He doesn’t actually talk back but her ability to work through her problems with his “help” is one of the things that makes her unique.
4. What do you do for a living?
Characters in books don’t have to pay rent—well, not literally at least; they do need to earn their keep with a good story that will hopefully sell.
My characters have held jobs that I always thought would be interesting but obviously didn’t pursue: an architect, an art restorer, an archeologist. Doing the research on those careers is half the fun.
And sometimes career ideas come out of the fridge. Literally in this case. I was totally stumped with what to do for the husband of the main character in my new book. Nothing was working. Then dinnertime came. I went to retrieve a jar of marinade and ended up with sticky fingers thanks to a leaky bottle. Voila, a marinade entrepreneur was born.
5. What do you like to do in your spare time?
There has to be more to life—even a fictional one—than working, eating, sleeping. Hobbies, we all have them. Our characters need them. And why not live vicariously through the people we’re creating.
One of my characters runs on the beach. I don’t live by the beach, but I can get on the treadmill, and with my eyes closed and brain cells working, I’m there. Then sit down and write that scene.
Love the idea of knitting but can’t get your fingers and brain to work together? Have a character who knits beautiful hats and sells them at craft shows.
Maybe all writers have a little Dr. Frankenstein in us. Mary Shelley’s novel was the first that made me dream about writing. But since I write Women’s Fiction, I hope none of my characters will send the villagers screaming into the night.
A few resources that might come in handy:
- 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
So tell me, how you do decide on names or careers or hobbies for your characters? What other questions do you ask your characters?
After years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet.
Orly’s manuscripts have finalled in seven contests including the Wisconsin Romance Writers “Fab Five” and the Greater Seattle Romance Writers of America’s “Emerald City Opener.” She’s currently querying her most recent manuscript, THE DAY THE MERRY-GO-ROUND STOPPED.
When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly has also joined forces with some amazing women’s fiction authors to launch the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.