Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 10, 2013

Playing Dr. Frankenstein – 5 Questions To Ask Your Characters Before You Begin

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.
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Complexion
  • 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:

So tell me, how you do decide on names or careers or hobbies for your characters? What other questions do you ask your characters?

About Orly

OrlyAfter 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.

You can find Orly on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

0 comments on “Playing Dr. Frankenstein – 5 Questions To Ask Your Characters Before You Begin”

  1. I make an excel sheet to answer all of those questions and also to keep track of how old a character is if there is a time length or the story has a lot of backstory.
    I also like to look through magazines and find a picture of my characters and cut them out. Having them staring back at me helps.
    Right now I am trying to find a teenage boy about 16 with light brown curly hair and a late 40's man who could be his father with similar traits.

    1. Photos are one thing I absolutely cannot do for my characters. For objects, places, etc, yes but the characters have to be in my head only. Strange, I know. 🙂

  2. I can't tell you how often I use the baby names websites. My hubby once jumped on my computer after I'd been trying to feel out some names once. He asked me (with a somewhat flabbergasted look on his face) if there was anything I needed to tell him. 🙂

    1. Oops. 🙂
      Hubs saw me reading about microbreweries the other day and volunteered to be my research assistant. NOW he's interested in what I write. Ha! 😉

  3. Orly, this post comes at the exact perfect time as I'm about to start a new WIP! I create a spreadsheet that addresses characteristics, but I didn't think to add career and interests. Great idea! I also ask my characters what their biggest fear is so I can make them face it sometime in the book, though I'm still working on developing enough conflict in my stories. I'm getting there, but it's difficult for me to do. Thanks for the post!

    1. Betty, check out 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass. Great checklists that will help you find opportunities in you story to add more conflict. Good luck with the new project. 🙂

  4. You and I are writing sisters, Orly - our processes are the same! I use the baby websites, too.

    And for surnames, once I know their ancestry, you can find surnames on the web, too.
    Write on!

  5. I tried to deal with "too many names, not enough children" by giving all 5 of my kids 2 middle names.

    But the names keep coming, so at least I have imaginary children to use them with.

    My characters all seem to share a single hobby: food. I'll have to consider broadening that aspect.

    1. Food is one of my favorite hobbies! There's a lot you can do with food and still make it unique for each book. But I do like the idea of having one common thread throughout all of them. 🙂

      1. Come to think of it, it's not just food in general. All my main characters seem to share my obsession with a truly magnificent sandwich.

        I could run with that.

        1. Glad to be of service, Orly 😉

          Want my recipe for a meatless BLT? I make a veggie sandwich where I swear I can taste the bacon. (Of course, there's always the real BLT, or better, BLAT, with avocado smeared all over it.)

      1. At least I never had 4 teenagers at once, like my parents did. No wonder they both greyed prematurely.

        My four oldest, 22 - 31, live with their mom, and my step-daughter is married, so Best Beloved and I only have her oldest (28) and our Little One (9) living with us. Not nearly as, er, exciting as if we had all 7 of hers, mine, and ours all at once.

  6. Fascinating suggestions, Orly. I often let the character evolve and reveal her/himself as days go on. One time I had a character's name come into my head. Renner. Didn't know for weeks if Renner was man or woman. Then something flew into my head that it was a man with one blind eye. The rest of the character traits just tumbled out as the writing advanced into the story. SmokeLong Quarterly published the short story. I guess I write more in a free-fall rather than go searching for it. Weird, huh?

    1. Not weird at all, Paula. That happens to me sometimes too. I had a name in my head for a while and kept trying to stick him in stories but he refused to cooperate. Then when I started the last ms, there he was. 🙂

  7. I think names are so important. I scan names for their meaning as well as how they sound rolling around in my head. So many sound like soap opera characters! 😉

    1. Yes, Lorna, the meanings of my character names is the most important attribute for me. Just seeing the name can either tell the reader about the character (like my heroine Athena) or point out irony (like my character Joy, who is anything but joyful). Thanks for adding your comment to the mix.

  8. I started out knowing what the hero did but the heroine, I was thinking of an office job but not knowing much about the land office I changed her to what I did know. A convenience store clerk. I just have to work it where when she has to disappear her boss is good with it lol.

    1. Thank you so much for the reblog!
      And you're right, it's almost impossible to avoid names of family and friends. Just have to be crafty about what character gets to wear what name. 🙂

  9. I always find the actor I want to play the character if it was a movie and include them in the dossier. A little family history. One of my characters insisted on being named after my grandfather and then, when it came time for him to take a last name (in the story, in the end--he never had one before), he picked a place-name from Ireland that part of my grandfather's last name came from (Sullivan Kilcoan).

    I've used baby names, ancestry, the phone book, the newspaper, and friends/enemies as character names.

  10. I actually have a 12 page worksheet that I use to help define characters. It includes both internal & external GMC + character archetype, then asks every question I could think of to build an entire fictional life. It covers basic information, lifestyle, family background, education, career, finances, friends & enemies, relationships, psychological background, situation, and an area for notes. Most of the information never gets used in my writing, but the process gives me a vivid mental image. If the characters come alive for the writer, they come alive for the reader. Also, this helps with continuity because the character is essentially set, and I can refer back to the sheet if something gets mentioned in the manuscript.

  11. I'm writing historical fiction, so the favorite names lists from 1890 have been really helpful. I've had some names in my novel that I've liked from the beginning and kept. However, others have had to change (wrong nationality, just didn't like them, etc.) I've almost completed my manuscript and just changed the name of a major character. I don't recommend that!

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