Blog Schedule

I post on Monday with an occasional random blog thrown in for good measure. I do my best to answer all comments via email and visit around on the days I post.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Finding and Collecting Characters

This is an article that was published way back in 2005 at the Institute for Children's Literature Rx for Writers. There are many wonderful blogs out there doing a fine job of passing on information about writing. I've never felt I had much too offer. But (there's that but...) I did have a few articles published, so I thought I'd share them. Not all at once, of course, so breathe a sigh of relief. This is the first 

Finding and Collecting Characters

So, you have a perfect idea for a story. What next? You need a character or two or three. After all, characters are the story, they are the plot. Wouldn’t you know it would be all about them? Just like regular people, they can selfish and self-centered. They want attention and recognition. They want to be described. They want their story told.

But how do you “create” your perfect protagonist? If you have a hard time “imagining” a character into being, maybe you need some models. Maybe you need to start collecting characters, like stamps or Barbie dolls.
“Where,” you ask, “do I find them?”
India - Actors - 0258
They’re everywhere, like ants at a picnic, like leaves on a tree. Just look around you. They lurk within your home and family. They skulk about your neighborhood and community. They flounce across your TV screen. They stare at you from the pages of magazines.

Collecting characters is simple, easy and fun.
Hugh Laurie Actors Guild            

As you go about your daily routine, start looking at people. Notice what they’re doing, how they are dressed, what they’re talking about. Everyday, or once a week, try to find one person to really study, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Unless you have a good memory, when you get back into your car, whip out your trusty note-pad and scribble down your observations.

Maybe you saw a cashier who wasn’t smiling. Maybe she stuck out because she seemed down-right unfriendly. You might come away from the experience feeling angry yourself. But, as a writer, you have to become an observer. And observers have to be dispassionate.
All you need at this initial stage is a rough sketch. It might read something like this: “Big haired, over-rouged cashier. Mid to late 50’s. Black hair. Dark eyes. Frown lines between eyebrows, at corners of mouth. Clipped, abrupt speech. Seemed angry. Never smiled. “
When you have more time, you can put flesh on her skeleton. Hopefully your rough sketch will trigger memories of your experience with the cashier. Start asking yourself questions.
“Why was she so sour? Has she always been this way? And if so, what’s made her such a Scrooge? Did she get some bad news? Didn’t she get enough sleep, or was she just having a bad-hair day?” Give her a story, give her an excuse. Write it down. Describe her physical appearance in a more detailed way. What was she wearing? Did she have a wedding band? Maybe she is recently divorced. Were her nails manicured and painted? Give her a mannerism. Maybe she has the nervous habit of chewing on her lower lip.
If you can’t remember specific details, make them up! As a writer, that’s one of the fun things you get to do. In any case, give the old girl a least of page of your time. Lastly, give your character sketch a title or name. How about, “The Sour Cashier” or “Mabel’s Bad-Hair Day?”
Siamese khon actors rehearse, 1900
Now, what do you do with the characters you’ve collected? If you’re anything like me, there are scraps of paper all over the place. An idea here, a thought over there, a description of a bug under the sofa….I’m not the most organized person in the world, but I do gather up my scraps of paper from time to time, go through them, and file them in their appropriate places.
One of these places is my “character file.” I’ve had one for over 30 years. I use a regular old three-ring binder. I have it broken down into a few basic categories, with dividers of course: men, women, girls, boys. You can break these down further if you need to: old men, extraterrestrials, teen girls, toddlers, you get the picture.
Once you’ve written up your character sketch, file it away in the appropriate category. As you can see, if you collected one person a day, at the end of a year you’d have 365 characters sketches! You can take one day off at leap year.
Okay, so you have a bunch of people down on paper. What next? Didn’t you have a perfect idea tickling your gray matter, but there were no characters to be found? Get out your file, it’s a giant mall. You can browse through it like a shopper. You can mix and match bits and pieces to develop a whole new persona, or, you can use that cashier just as you sketched her.
But wait! Maybe what you need is an idea. This is where the titles or names you’ve given your characters may be the match that lights the creative fire.
Over time you will no doubt have to thin out your rogues’ gallery, discarding people you’ve used up or ones that will never work for you. But what the heck, there are six billion more where they came from, each and every one as unique as a finger print.
Another way to collect characters is to look for pictures of interesting people and faces. You might even need a separate binder for them. I cut pictures from magazines and newspapers and paste them onto lined loose-leaf paper. The lines help me write straight when I work up a character sketch.
There is one other thing I keep in my character file. Names. Interesting names I read or hear about, or names I make up, all go together. Any kind of name can find its way onto the list; place names, magical names, foreign names, people names, animal names. I keep them all roughly alphabetized by first letter.
Now you can find the perfect name for your perfect character to act out your perfect story. Go forth and write.


  1. I like the picture idea. Never thought about writing down the characteristics of those I meet, but it would certainly help.

  2. That's what I love about people watching. Gives me so many great ideas. I spend more time watching people at a baseball game than I do the actual game because there is such a variety.

  3. People watching is one of my favorite things ... my sister and I always made up wicked stories about the people we saw :)

    So glad you are putting up these articles on your blog.

  4. Love this! I am going to start a character file today. The idea of adding pictures and words is awesome. I have a file for words I love and names I think are cool- but not one for characters. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great post! Thanks for all the good ideas, and thanks for stopping by my blog to "visit" with Anne. We both appreciate it.

  6. A person a day - that sounds almost like a fun game, and a great idea!

  7. I like the picture idea, too. And I love creating backstory for characters. And names! I'm one who has to name the character right away.

  8. lol, I love that you likened characters to ants at a picnic. Great tips.


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