WD wants to know: Where do your best characters come from?

The man on the street, bowler hat, French cigarette and smug charm? An eccentric, reclusive billionaire you read about in a magazine? A facet of yourself known only to you?

Characters are everywhere. Where do you get yours? In each issue of Writer’s Digest, we propose a(n often mind-bendingly tricky) question for our Superlatives poll, and the fun/madness comes in forcing yourself to answer it. In the March/April issue, which is currently shipping to subscribers, we ask the following:

If you had to pick just one from among the following techniques, what breeds your best characters?

  • Basing them on yourself    
  • Using traits from people you’re personally familiar with in “real life”    
  • Using traits from strangers you’ve heard about    
  • Crafting characters strictly from the imagination

What do you think? Stop by the Writer’s Digest forum, vote and share your thoughts on the subject (you have to be a member of the free forum to do so). The results will appear in a future issue of the magazine, as will a response on the topic from one commenter.

Also, via GalleyCat, check out an interview about NPR’s upcoming Three-Minute Fiction contest. How’s your short game?

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WRITING PROMPT: Clash of the Characters
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the captcha code sticking, feel free to e-mail your story to me at writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll make sure it gets up.

Create a scene using four characters: One based on yourself, one based on someone you personally know, one based on someone you heard about in the media, and one spawning strictly from the imagination. Make the media story the hook or reason they’re all together, and base the scene around that.

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Great Creative in 2010: Tap into inspiration. Learn strategies for making time to write. Plan your own low key writing retreat. Check out 26 writing contests that can get your book published. Create a book trailer with cinematic flair. Learn Sue Grafton’s writing secrets. Click here to check the February 2010 issue of WD out!

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9 thoughts on “WD wants to know: Where do your best characters come from?

  1. Zac

    Dig the stories!

    And thanks to you all for your thoughts.

    I think I tend to steal from a hybrid of myself and strangers (I’m addicted to people watching). Mark, dig that Dickinson quote, too.

    And Martha: Rumor has it that bowler hat is reflecting the only known image of the great rumored Robot God …

  2. Martha W

    Hhm… I’d have to say that I base a lot of my characters on a combo – usually it is strangers that I’ve met (or seen) that have caught my attention and I think "what if?".

    And is there an evil alien in the bowler hat? Or am I the only one who sees that?

    Mark – such a wonderful $2…

    As for mine – I let my imaginary friends out to play and they showed up on four feet instead of two. *sigh* I have no idea.


    "Did you have to bite him?" Alex circled the cage looking for a comfy spot.

    Jack sniffed once, turned an ear toward the tabby. "He tried to touch me. Didn’t you see that?"

    A low purr vibrated the metal floor. Callie stretched out long, settled down to wait. "What was that on his shirt?"

    "A badge. It means he’s important." Alex circled again. "He could take us away."

    "He IS taking us away." Jack growled, batted at Alex on his next pass around the cage.

    Callie yawned. "Wish you’d stop fighting." She rubbed her chin on her paw and noticed the brown tip of Jack’s tail poking through the grate. Slowly, she rolled onto her haunches.

    The Siamese, unaware, laid his ears back and hissed. "He started it."

    "Did not." Alex sat, then stood and started another circle.

    "Knock it off." Callie stretched a paw forward one step and scooted to match it. "You’re acting like a kitten. What are we going to do?"

    Jack huffed, turned his back, pulled his tail tight around his body. He said nothing.

    Callie grumbled now that her toy was gone. "Alex?"

    "We’ll find new homes. Humans love us." Alex purred. Overcrowding annoyed him; here, with thirty others, it was ridiculous. A cat couldn’t catch a break.

    Callie slinked back to her warm spot and curled up tight. "Sounds good to me."

    Jack’s tail smacked the cage, slipped back through a hole. He growled his frustration. "It could get worse."

    Bright light poured into the truck when the door opened. Jack hissed at the man as he reached into the bed to set down a box. The man jerked and flung the door closed.

    Alex sat close to Jack’s side. "You need to be nice."

    Jack lifted his chin. Did his best to look confident. He was, after all, a Siamese. They were merely alley cats. "As long as he keeps his hands off me, we’ll be fine."

    With a shake of his head, Alex circled the cage again. "There’s just no good spot in here."

    "What’s in the box?" Callie bumped the grating near the boys.

    Jack, Alex and Callie all stared at the shoebox. One sniff told them the story.

    In the box was Lucky.

    Jack growled. "Fine. I’ll be nice."

  3. Mark James

    Zac, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say that I prefer to base characters on myself, but I’ll steal from Emily Dickinson and say that I tell the truth, but I tell it slant.

    It’s not the three people you’d meet in Heaven or anything, but here I am. Never thought I’d interview a preacher about something besides cheating on his wife. But hey, only thing stranger than fiction’s the truth, right?

    I turned to Jordan, the Wulf. “What’s it like, spending your whole life guarding someone?”

    He gave me a smile that had way too many teeth. “It was my choice. I joined the Brotherhood when I was ten.”

    What he left out was that if he didn’t join, they’d take out the genetic link that let him turn into a wolf, and he’d pretty much spend his days wiping drool off his chin.

    I turned in my chair, leaned over like I was asking my best friend to tell me about his girl. “What about you, Shane? Did you want all that fame?”

    He shook his head slowly. His white skin glowed under the lights. I remembered from his bio that when he started out, he’d been a little black kid. “No,” he said.

    Didn’t seem like he was planning on saying more unless I dragged it out of him. “What did you want?”

    He smiled, looked past me, talked right to the virtual camera. “I wanted to tell stories, make people feel something.”

    “You mean touch their souls?” Pastor Daniel said.

    Leave it to a preacher to steal my interview.

    Shane looked at him, shifted on the black velvet couch. “No. I wanted them to touch my soul. I got lonely, scared.”

    The pastor lifted his arms, taking in the gleaming wood floor, the curtained windows, the brick walls. “And now that you’re here?”

    Shane didn’t miss a blink. “If I went back, I could write about Hell.”

    This wasn’t going how I wanted. “Viktor, if someone had gone after her, would you have laid down your life for your Queen?”

    “Yes.” I wished he wouldn’t smile at me like that. Talk about feeling like dinner. “After I ripped out their throat.”

    “Perhaps it’s best if you tell us why you’ve brought us back,” Pastor Dan said. “I’m sure we’re all anxious to know.”

    I didn’t think Viktor was anxious to know anything except if I tasted as good as I looked.

    “The Super Soul Chip’s been used to reconstruct your consciousness.” I looked into the camera behind them. “Before the world decides on giving you bodies, The Flawed Universe Studios wants to give you a chance to join the worldwide debate on reanimation.” This was the moment the world had waited for, the reason advertisers had paid tens of millions for spots on this first Virtual Consciousness Broadcast. “Why do you think you deserve to live again?”

    Viktor sat up a little straighter. “I gave my life so that others could live.”

    Pastor Dan bowed his head. “I know the way to God.”

    Shane looked into the camera. “I know how to make people forget that Death’s waiting between every heartbeat.”

    It was Viktor. I should have known he’d be the one to ask. “And Mr. James, what is that you do, that you should continue to live?”

    Seconds of priceless air time ticked by in silence. I should have said I helped the needy, gave to the poor. “I make up lies, write them down, and sell them.”

    Viktor turned that smile on me. “Excellent.”

  4. Candy Burgess

    As each mile drew near, Candelyn grew more anxious. “Ti, where’s the turn-off?”

    “It’s Tiana!”

    “What? Since when?”

    “Since I turned eighteen.” Her daughter sat back. “It’s up a ways.”

    “I hope so; we’re running out of gas.” Tossing her the map. “Look again. I’m getting nervous.”

    Her daughter let out a sigh and muttered. “Great, you got us lost.”

    “I did? Who’s the navigator here? Let’s pull over, no need…”

    “…Mom, look.”

    “Is it a woman? It’s hard to tell.”

    Her daughter smirked. “Yeah, I didn’t think people wore cloaks.”

    Candelyn pulled up along side the mysterious looking woman, who turned at their approach. “Ti, roll down your…wait. Get your mace out, just in case.” She slowed the car to a crawl. “Okay. Now.”

    “Miss. Excuse me. My daughter and I…” Candelyn glanced forward then back again. To her utter amazement, the woman was gone. She looked at her daughter who returned her shocked expression.

    “Mom, she vanished. Poof.”

    “No I didn’t.”

    The two jumped at her voice. Candelyn slammed on her breaks, while her daughter turned in her seat, mace aimed and ready.

    “I won’t hurt you. I need you.” The woman removed her cowl. “Without you, the Producer is lost. We need him.” She beamed. An ethereal air about her. “The end is near, midnight tonight.” The woman waived, “By the load you carry, I see you believe the media hype…The apocalypse of 2012. It‘s true, you know.”

    “Ah. My Uncle, he said it was better to be safe, then sorry. We’re supposed to meet…”

    “…I know. Clarksville Cave.”

    Tiana couldn’t help her curiosity. “Producer, what does he produce? Movies?”

    “Tiana, it’s not the time to be funny.” The Prophet responded.

    Candelyn grabbed her daughter’s mace and aimed it at the woman. “How’d you know her name? And how…”

    “…I am the prophet. I know all about you and your daughter. I’ve always known.” The mysterious woman answered. “We must hurry. The end is near.” The Prophet looked anxious. “Please!”

    Tiana asked again. “So, who is this Producer?”

    “There are many women at the cave; they’re waiting for us, and the Producer. We must hurry!”

    “But I don’t understand. Who…”

    Candelyn interrupted her daughter with a chuckle, and then answered. “Producer, Tiana, don’t you get it?”

    “Oh yeah. Oh! Producer. One man?” Tiana asked.

    “There are a few,” the Prophet answered. “This is the last one. He’s been celibate for two years now. He’s perfect!”

    Tiana shook her head, and then asked. “So few. Is it enough?”

    The Prophet laughed. “A stallion can produce many off springs. Besides, fewer the men, the better?”

    “Sure is.” Candelyn answered with a smile, before pulling her car back onto the road.

    “Up ahead, around the corner. You’ll see. It’s him.” The Prophet supplied.

    Candelyn sped up and around the corner she spotted the broken down car. Pulling up beside the car, she yelled out, “Excuse me, but…”

    “…Yes,” bumping his head as he turned.

    “Holy crap,” her daughter shrieked. “Mom. That’s John Mayer.”

  5. Dorraine

    Gosh, you do keep it lively around these digs, Zac! I left my comment on the forum in regards to your question. My mind was clicking and clacking on that one. A great question.

    Hmmm…I’ll be back later with a story, me thinks.

  6. Gale Laure

    My best characters come from watching people in public places. You can get some great ones at the library, the mall or McDonalds. I gather people characteristics and combine them to create my fascinating characers in my novel(s). GL


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