View Full Version : Methods to character construction

12-09-2011, 06:39 AM
To the writing community, I was wondering how you all come up with your unique individual characters in your story. I am curious to see if there more out there like me because I often find myself being critical of my ideas for being unoriginal.

If I were to describe myself as a writer it would be that I can weave a background and a story to go with a character with confidence. However, I often run into the situation where I have trouble physically forming that character in my mind to start working with. I suppose this stems from what got me into writing to begin with. I came across a picture of a female in an anime and was so struck by her look that it was like lightning. I simply had to write to story surrounding a created character that looked like her.

Ever since, I have found myself looking to visual aides for inspiration more so than my imagination. Everything from artwork, anime, video games, and so on. Is this a bad thing? Does this make me an idea thief and a bad person for doing so?

The world of writing has such a diverse community in which there is unparalleled freedom to go in new directions with character designs or race, especially the SFF genre I belong to. In this realm of freedom, do some of you create as I do with character inspiration coming from visual stimulation? Or do you use other methods? I have even had one friend recommend the unconventional method of putting physical characteristics (hair color, skin tone, etc.) on a dart board and throw darts to create the combination for the character.

Thank you all for your time in this! :)

Richard White
12-09-2011, 07:15 AM
I get ideas from art all the time.

I wouldn't worry about that. I'm pretty sure you could show the exact same character's picture to seven different writers and get twelve different origin stories.

Ideas are easy. Words are hard. *grin*

12-09-2011, 07:41 AM
I only have the vaguest idea of what any of my characters look like. For example, the MC for my WIP is overweight, but I haven't decided what her hair/eye/skin color is yet. It's just not important for my planning process. On the other hand, I know how she reacts to things. I know that she is very calm and it takes a lot to throw her, and that she isn't the type of person to make a reckless decision in the heat of the moment.

Characters just sort of...appear in my head. Plots are much harder for me.

12-09-2011, 07:45 AM
I describe my characters in terms of their thoughts and actions. The looks are secondary to me.

12-09-2011, 08:05 AM
Ever since, I have found myself looking to visual aides for inspiration more so than my imagination. Everything from artwork, anime, video games, and so on. Is this a bad thing? Does this make me an idea thief and a bad person for doing so?No; you have a muse.

As long as the character isn't recognizable as the original (and you'd have to be very specific, or your muse would have to be very unique, before that would happen), I really don't think you're stepping on the original artist's toes.

If that's what gets your creative juices sloshing, go ahead and use it.

12-09-2011, 08:09 AM
It's fine to draw your inspiration for a character from art, video games, and anime so long as you're just being inspired and not lifting an anime or video game character, trait for trait, and transplanting into your original story. But it's nothing to have the looks for the character based on someone you saw somewhere else. My most physically "defined" character is based on a kid on a motorcycle I saw get pulled over while I was idling at a red light. I don't see that as being any different from you seeing an anime girl and getting an idea. Understand, though, that if your character looks exactly like Spiderman or Barbed Wire, then someone's going to notice that. Inspired by does not be exactly like.

For other characters that I've got pretty physically made up in my head... There's one that I just picked a bunch of traits for off the bat and stuck with them. There's a character whose personality I figured out fast, but I didn't know many of his physical characteristics because they weren't that important. When I came to a place where I needed to describe one of them, I just picked one and that's how it is.

12-09-2011, 02:39 PM
Characters generally need a hook - a characteristic that defines them in some vague way, gives your readers a 'first impression' that makes them interested enough in them to keep reading and let you develop the rest. These hooks often also help you in designing the character in the first place. It could be a particular look or a particular facial tic or habit. It could also be something from their past (parents killed? recently divorced?) or another characteristic (hates snakes? Loves musical theatre?) What you describe to me sounds like you are getting inspiration for your character hooks from these sources and then building from there and this is fine so long as you don't copy the character completely. For example, you can have a character who looks a little like Lara Croft but you can't make her Lara Croft completely (and the closer she is to that character the worse it is...).

You can often use character building questions to help you as well. Set some questions like 'Where do they live?' or 'What are their political or religious beleifs?' and try to answer them as your characters. These questions can be a good guideline when you are writing. Keep asking different questions until the character starts to seem rounded to you.

Drachen Jager
12-09-2011, 09:45 PM
I've been working on developing my characterization lately.

Rule 1. They should be larger than life.

Rule 2. They should 'ring true' if your audience thinks, 'hey I know that guy,' you're on the right track. If it fits, try to base your characters on people you actually know.

Rule 3. They should all have unique dialogue patterns, repeated expressions and attitude, education level, etc. which comes out in the dialogue. Neil Gaimen is one of the best genre-fic writers for this. I'm re-reading Anansi Boys right now to get a feel for how he does it so well, especially the characters of Graeme Coates and, Anansi, the Caribbean characters are all very well done too (he really captures the Caribbean cadence and word use).

12-09-2011, 10:01 PM
For me characters step into voids. They need a name and I generally have a vague idea of what they look like. Their abilities and thoughts reveal themselves as needed, kind of like when you meet a new friend

I'll give a very general description, usually, but the details; their clothing, and what their voices, sound like, etc fall to the minds of the reader unless there is something important about them.

If any of that stuff plays a part in the story, like maybe the character wearing a dress and high heels on a camping trip, I describe them clearly enough that the reader has something to work with.

a statement like "Nice skirt, ever been camping before?" by another camper is enough. The reader can give it a color or length etc as he automtically will.

12-09-2011, 10:03 PM
I just model them all after real people. Why construct a Frankenstein monster when there are billions of real people out there to use and abus?

12-10-2011, 02:04 AM
Physical appearance is usually the last thing I figure out about any particular character. Sometimes it slowly emerges piece-wise as the character develops. Sometimes after I've been working with a character for a while I'll suddenly get a visual for what they look like. But even so:

do some of you create as I do with character inspiration coming from visual stimulation?

Yes, this is sometimes the case. But it's a combination of facial expression and body language (and whatever I read into these things) that grabs me and translates to the fictional character. Not the "usual" physical traits.

12-10-2011, 02:11 AM
Ever since, I have found myself looking to visual aides for inspiration more so than my imagination. Everything from artwork, anime, video games, and so on. Is this a bad thing? Does this make me an idea thief and a bad person for doing so?

I do the same thing all the time. The family in my current WiP is based off video characters from an obscure free-to-play online game. I fell in love with the way the different characters looked (there wasn't a whole lot of customization available for the characters. one class, one look based on gender although you could dress them a little differently even the outfits were stock and not a lot to choose from but they sure were pretty) and yet I built up a whole world around them that had nothing to do with the game itself.

So if you're an idea thief and bad person, then I am as well. Come sit next to me and we'll swap pictures. :)

12-10-2011, 03:27 AM
I have strong ideas about my main characters' appearance, some of which only develop as I write them. Other characters will get just a brief hint of description, so that people can fill in the blanks.

I try to stay away from using real people or other artists' work as inspiration, unless I really file the serial numbers off. Sometimes I can't help it. After months of writing him, I was stunned to see how much one of my MCs resembled an actor I'd never seen before. Watching the actor on TV is an unnerving delight now, because I keep seeing hints of my MC.

Sidney Bristol
12-10-2011, 03:40 AM
I write romance, so I almost have to know what my characters look like, but that's not often the first thing that I work from.

For me, I keep a novel notebook I've taken from Lynn Viehl's blog, slapped it into OneNote and work through the character sheet that I've altered to fit my needs.

There's usually something that sparks the idea for a character. My latest WIP, for example, the heroine is a roller derby girl by night and a computer programmer by day. I knew she'd fit some of the "nerdy" girl hallmarks, but also that she would be physically fit from derby.

One of my handy cheating methods is to use an astrology site I found ages ago. It gives a general template for what people born under certain signs are and which signs they work best, play best and love best with. I use that to spark my mind and flesh them out in areas I wouldn't necessarily think of. I use those items in the astrology profile as a type of spring board.

I don't mind using images for inspiration, but the characters are often only ever seen clearly in my mind's eye. I do like to find a picture or several that represent the characters that will help jog my memory while writing.

As far as the background and family and jobs, those often depend on what the story is. Going back to my derby girl, I knew she was going to be from a very intellectual family. Though she's practically a genious herself, her brother is still smarter and thus the preferred child. All of this makes her a little uncertain and modest of her abilities. I had to figure out how she got involved in derby, and do that in a way that was believable. Thus, in a lot of ways, the story I want to tell dictates my character's history.

Hope that helps!

12-10-2011, 07:07 AM
For me, I always start with an idea, a situation. Then I determine the characteristics of the characters that would be the most likely to cause conflicts in that situation. As my storyline outline develops, I get a clearer picture of the characters I want.
I give my characters some characteristic that distinguishes them--the young boy with the scar across his left cheek who speaks with a lisp, the blonde-haired girl in the plaid skirt whose hand is always raised in class, the elderly woman who always wears scarves over her hair and has high heeled shoes that click with every step, the frowning teen girl with green lipstick and purple eye shadow, the balding businessman in the bright red tie that reads Happy Father's Day.
In the story, I can describe a person with that characteristic, and the reader knows who I'm writing about.

12-10-2011, 07:34 AM
I strive to make my characters come across as "real". I can't imagine an analytical method for doing that. Writing fiction is an art, not a science, and certainly not a cookbook. Do you think Van Gogh paid attention to somebody's analytical recommendation about how much paint he should use on his brush, or how wide the brush strokes should be? Hey, Vince, stars aren't really swirly like that, you know?


12-10-2011, 08:15 AM
I usually start with a concept, so I kind of back into character creation.

What kind of character most suits the situation? Now, what makes this situation particularly difficult for this particular character? How does the character cope with stress? With daily life?

From there, I think of someone I know who has sort of a similar personality as the one I'm working on. It might be a movie character, a family member, or whatever. I imagine how that person would be if they had my character's backstory and experiences.

And from there, I work on theme--my characters react to my themes, one way or another.

This gives me a really good idea of my character. I've got the parts that I need for the story, and I've got a real person's personality for "filler."