Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 2, 2023

How Did You Ever Come Up with a Character Like That?

by Sharon K. Connell

Often, I’ve been asked how I find the characters I use in my stories. The first time I was asked that question, it seemed odd to me. That was because when an idea for a story comes to me, I simply imagine the character in whatever situation the story starts out in, and I go from there.

For example, in my latest release, Trust Never After, my main female character is a young woman who is half-Irish and half-Finnish. It came naturally to me to use those nationalities because they are mine. I have the setting in Minnesota where my mother was born and raised. There are so many people of Finnish descent in the area, that it was also natural for me to use the half-Finnish, half-Irish nationality for the main male character. And because all of my stories have an Irish theme to them (at least with the characters), I added the Irish heritage.

You might ask, “Are all of your characters half-Irish and half-Finnish?” No, they are not. All of the main female characters are at least half-Irish because that’s what I’ve chosen, except in the case of some of my short stories. The rest of the characters may have some Irish in their blood, but not necessarily. Especially when it comes to the minor characters in the story or the villains.

You might also ask, “Do you always base your characters on you?” No. This was the first book where my main female character was more or less based on myself. Her nationality and feistiness are definitely mine. J

Where do I get the other characters for my stories?

They come from life. I’m an observer of human nature. Wherever I go, I’m watching people. I keep an eye on my family, friends, acquaintances, the people I run into each day, people I’ve known, etc. None of my characters are exclusively patterned after any one person I know or have observed. They are composites of people. The closest I’ve come to basing any character on one person was Lucy in Treasure in a Field. I gained her permission to base my minor character in the story on her and her dog, Cian.

Lucy is a friend of ours who travels to jobs around the country, working as a tour guide and other positions. Her dog Cian played an important role in the story. I did change Cian’s name to Sean for the tale. Not everything about my character Lucy and her dog Sean match my friend and her canine, but anyone who knows them would recognize Lucy and Cian in the story right away, I’m sure. This was the one and only time I’ve done this, and it was done because I wanted a character just like Lucy for the story.

Developing Your Characters

When you start your story, you have to have your main character figured out right away. You should already know what their personality is going to be like based on the trials and errors they will go through. To me, this is the main part of making up the character. The physical appearance can come later.

As a matter of fact, I generally don’t give the physical attributes to a character while writing the first draft, unless I need a particular look or trait for a scene. I usually wait for most of the details until I go through the story the second time. At that point, I start a dossier with every characteristic or trait for that person. I even record minor things about the person, like how they drink their coffee, so it stays the same throughout the story. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to slip up on eye color, height, etc. while your mind is deep into the telling of the tale.

While writing the story, a person in your neighborhood may come to mind. It’s like picking out an actor for a part in a movie. You let your mind search through everyone you remember and find the one that best suits the role. I never force a character into a part. It has to come naturally, or they won’t fit right.

Using Clichés in our Writing

When you’ve chosen your characters, you need to give each one of them their own personality and peculiarities. One of my minor characters in Paths of Righteousness is a doctor who loves to get everyone’s attention by using clichés all the time. Now I know what you writers are thinking. Oh no! We’re never supposed to use clichés in our writing. It’s a big NO-NO!

Let me ask you a question. Do we use clichés in our natural everyday speech? Aren’t we supposed to create dialogue for our characters that sounds real to the reader?

Yes, we are to limit the use of clichés in our work. But in this case, it was part of the humorous doctor’s personality. My readers loved it. Normally, I try to curb the use of clichés in writing dialogue, but I don’t eliminate them altogether any more than I cut out all adverbs, which sometimes can be very useful to tell the reader exactly what you are describing. Now writing narrative from the author is a different story. There you must use grammar that shows you have control over the English language.

Personality Building

Building a personality is more difficult than initially finding your character in the first place. But again, I go to the people I remember. Usually, I’ll combine maybe one, two, or three personalities into one character. The character may be brave, like my military friends, but he also uses common sense, like my husband. She may be feisty, like me, but she has a soft spot for children like some of my other friends have.

Character Flaws

Then there are the faults we must give our characters. They can’t be perfect human beings any more than any of us are. They must have a fault to overcome or try to better by the end of the story. In my newest release, Trust Never After, my heroine has been hurt and decides she’ll never trust another man with her heart. That means she’s judging all men by just one. That’s a fault indeed. My hero takes on blame for something he had no control over. His fault is that he’s too hard on himself.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever seen about creating characters is this. “Get your character up a tree… and then throw rocks at him.” In other words, get your character into a place in the story where everything is going wrong for them. After that, they have to figure out a way to correct the problem.

Final Thoughts

I love creating characters for my stories. They each have their own little quirks, loveable parts, speech or unique dialogue, and so many other things that let the readers know who is speaking even without you giving a dialogue tag or action beat to the words (although sometimes it’s still a good idea).

For you writers, enjoy building your characters using all the parts of the people you know or have met, all their idiosyncrasies and problems, their physical traits, and unique use of the English language.

For you readers, just enjoy the different characters the writer has created for the story and imagine what they are really like. Do you see someone you know in those characters? Do you see yourself?

* * * * * *

About Sharon

Sharon K. Connell, living in Houston, Texas, writes Christian romance suspense with mystery and humor. After college in Illinois, Sharon graduated from Pensacola Bible Institute. She holds a certificate in fiction writing from IWP through the University of Iowa. She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Houston Writers Guild, and Christian Women Writers, is the founder of Facebook Christian Writers & Readers, and writes for global online magazine Faith on Every Corner. Sharon is an independent author with several novels, a novella, a novelette, a multi-genre collection of short stories, and a cookbook published since 2014.

Find Sharon on WIX Website, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook group -- The Works of Author Sharon K Connell, Facebook Group Forum, Instagram, Facebook Author Page. Here's a YouTube short of her newest release Trust Never After.

Top Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

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18 comments on “How Did You Ever Come Up with a Character Like That?”

  1. An informative post. I love how you build your characters.
    One of mine in particular is based loosely on one person, but with traits from others. I think most of the others are composites. And I've used some dialogue that I heard, too.

    1. Yes, that's how we do it. Except in the case of my character Lucy, I try to avoid having anyone's traits recognized in one of my stories. You just never know who they'll respond to it. 🙂

  2. Hi Sharon,

    I love your shared advice, "Get your character up and tree ... and then throw rocks at him."

    That's something I have to remind myself to do. Give the characters more problems to deal with, making the story a lot more interesting.

    Great article!

    1. Thanks, Ellen. It makes the readers pull for that characters all the more. I've had readers tell me they fell in love with a character, and I'm sure it's because of all the difficulties they faced.

  3. I like that advice about throwing rocks too. I'm a peacemaker and tend to love the characters I create and hate torturing them. It usually shows in my first draft and gets pointed out by my author friends who serve as my beta readers/first developmental edit pass. Then I have to up the conflict and usually add more to their arc. I made notes to flesh out the charcter arc in my next project BEFORE I write it. 😉

    Thanks for sharing, Sharon.

    1. Maybe this will help, Tracy. Whenever your character gets to the point of everything seemingly going their way, throw a wrench into the works. 🙂 Works for me. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Love the advice about being hard on our characters. Getting to know them and learn where they will be uncomfortable, what they did want, gives so much power to the story.

    1. Exactly! Life never runs smoothly. That's what endears a reader to the character. They can see what is happening in real life. So many times I've had a reader say, "...it was just like being in the room with them." We always have obstacles to overcome. In a fiction story, it makes the story more realistic.

  5. Nice article, Sharon. I love creating characters as well. In fact we follow similar creation paths. When I read that you document everything about a character, I thought, well duh. Then you said, even minor details "like how they drink their coffee." Head-desk moment. Why haven't I thought of that before? lol. I will from now on, thank you!

    1. LOL So glad I could give you a new tip. I learned the hard way. It's important to keep the minor facts straight too. We don't want our readers catching something and saying, "But wait a minut... bank in chapter 3..." LOL Thanks for the comment. God bless your writing.

  6. Thank you for this interesting and informative article. I love your idea of creating a character who loves to use clichés. My art instructor tells her students, "You have to understand the rules before you can break them."

    1. Thank you, Louise. My readers really got a kick out of the doctor. And he fully admitted doing it to get attention. LOL He was one of my favorite characters in Path of Righteousness.

  7. Everything starts and ends with characters in the stories I love to read, but interestingly not for the stories I write. Usually the character comes with "a situation," and the other characters show up to help deal with that situation. They DO tend to just show up, and they do sometimes have qualities of people I've met. Most of the time though, they have what they need to deal with "the situation."

    I never would have thought about this if not for reading your post, so THANK YOU!

    1. You're very welcome, Jenny. And your comment just goes to show that we're all different and have different ways of writing. None of use are the final authority. What works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa. As long as it work for us and the readers like what they read, that's what's important.

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