Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

Getting Ideas: Characterization

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Regarding the source of fictional ideas for writers, science fiction author, Michael Moorcock, once wrote: “Terry Pratchett claimed that his came from a warehouse in Croydon, England, while Harlan Ellison would tell people that his arrived every month from a mysterious mail-order place in Peoria, Illinois.[1]” Kidding aside, sometimes it can feel like there’s no inspiration to be found. Right?

If you’re coming up short of ideas, why not start by creating a character? Don’t worry about what she/he is going to do, what’s going to happen, or even where s/he lives. Just make up a character. Just have fun.

First, let’s give him a name. How about Sam? Okay, Sam it is. Now, is there anything unusual about Sam? Maybe he has a Roman nose, or a big wart or hawkish eyes. Perhaps he has a dry sense of humor. Imagine Sam in your mind and just write some things down. Do you like Sam? Would others? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Maybe he’s ambiguous, confused, or terribly ordinary. Put whatever qualities you want. Again, just have fun.

Now that you know a little about Sam, how about filling in some back story? Where did he grow up? Does he have any siblings? What was/is his father like? His mother? Was he a country boy or a city slicker? Did he live uptown or in the slums? What time period does he live in? What universe? Did he have a happy childhood, feeling loved and accepted, or did he have an abusive parent in whose eyes he couldn’t do anything right? Maybe he grew out of test tube and had no parents at all. All these things affect your character’s values, behavior and motivations. Now, let’s write about Sam, shall we?

Sam looked out the grimy window of his cramped office, his brown eyes peering over that unmistakable Jewish nose of his that always got him in trouble. His mother used to say he couldn’t keep his nose out of anything. And she was right. Perhaps it was this innate curiosity that led Sam into his field. And also made him the best. Sam had more solved cases on the books, in just five years, than any other New York City detective.

See how easy? I just made it up off the top of my head. If a story or setting doesn’t pop into your mind right away, never fear. Just keep writing about your character. For instance:

Sam, a 32 year old Jewish man, was the middle child between two sisters, one three years his elder, the other two years younger. As a middle child, he might have felt ignored, had it not been for the fact that he was the only son and the apple of his mother’s eye. His parents, Russian-Jewish emigrants and skilled craftsmen, ran a small jewelry store downstairs from the 2-bedroom flat in which he grew up in the Bronx. Much of the jewelry they sold was mere baubles — trinkets for the lower class to appease an angry girlfriend or a cheap gift for Mother’s Day. But his father, Boris, also made fine custom jewelry for which he was known all around Manhattan. Sometimes, a famous person would even drop by, ordering a special piece for a wedding or other special event. Those days were exciting for Sam, who would hide behind the counter, watching the rich and famous converse easily with his dad. In spite of a thick Russian accent, Boris was good natured and affable with clients; Sam liked to think he got his people skills from those days that he watched his father at work.

This isn’t for others to read, so don’t worry about the quality of your prose. This is just back-story to prime your pump. If you get to know character well enough, you just might find a story popping up around her. And, when you do get around to writing it, you’ll be enabled to bring much more consistency and depth to your characters because they’ll be like old friends who you know all too well.

Til next time, happy writing!

© Ashandra-Aah, 2009. No part of this article may be copied, reposted, or reprinted without the author’s express permission.


[1] Moorcock, Michael. The Eternal Champion. Forward. Revised edition. 1987.

Now on Kindle!