Creating Characters

I’m teaching a brand new elective at my middle school this semester — Advanced Creative Writing — and I’m lucky enough to be working with ten of the coolest, smartest 7th graders you ever did meet.  They’re working on independently selected writing projects, from novels to short stories to screenplays.  Along the way, I’ll be sharing some of our activities and asking for some of your favorite strategies to get the creative juices flowing.  I emphasize the concept of "mentor authors" in this class, encouraging kids to study what really works in their favorite authors’ writing and learn from it, so I’m hoping some of you writers out there (published and pre-published) might join in our conversation!

This morning, we worked on some introductory character development, answering these questions as our main characters:

What did you have for breakfast today?
What does your bedroom look like?
What are you worried about right now?
What do you want more than anything?
Who’s your best friend?
Who’s your worst enemy?

I always scribble along with the kids when we have a writing prompt, and today, I discovered some interesting things about a brand new main character who’s been starting to whisper in my ear. 

What about you?  What are some of your favorite strategies for getting to know your characters?

25 Replies on “Creating Characters

  1. Here are some questions that work for me:

    What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?
    How do you handle challenges?
    What do you eat when you want to feel comforted?
    Where is your favorite spot to ‘get away from it all’?

  2. A successful strategy that works for me is to find a portrait of a character that inspires me. Often times I find them online,in the form of artwork done by other talented artists.

    I find it enhances the experience if I listen to music that motivates me. It’s amazing how certain songs and an artistic rendition of a fantasy character can bring an entire private viewing, in your mind, of all the possibilities for that character. Soon after, I often know their names, their personalities, their strengths and limitations, and what motivates them most. I love meeting my next character that way, and gaining an inside view on someone the whole world has yet to meet. It’s addicting!

    Good luck on your project! I miss teaching large groups of school-aged kids, creative arts. I taught art and creative thinking for ten years before homeschooling and becoming a full time writer. 🙂


  3. I’ve done the following activity:

    I give the students boxes that are labeled TOP SECRET. I have each student imagine what his character would put in the box right before he shoved it in the deepest corner of his closet, safely tucked behind piles of laundry and old shoes.

    Then I have the students think about what their characters would do if their moms found their boxes. Or maybe their little sisters. Or maybe their best friends.

  4. One strategy I’ve suggested to kids as they begin a story is to start with the sentence, “I have a problem.” This strategy is based on a Highlights for Children short story contest that required all of the contest entries to begin with this sentence. In working with kids who like to write, I’ve found that this approach really helps them to get into the conflict of the story right away — and the “I have a problem” sentence can always be eliminated once they really get into the story. This approach might also work in getting to know your character better by understanding the challenges that the character faces.

  5. I wish I had a Creative Writing class in middle school! I was lucky enough to be able to take one freshman year of high school with one of the greatest English teachers I’ve ever had, and six years later, it’s one of my majors in college 🙂

  6. I’ve found I can’t really write good characters until I figure out who their parents were–just a few lines about their childhoods, how they met, how they raised the character. Then I have to think about the character’s childhood. Knowing where they came from is half the battle! And, I have to draw them!

  7. Whispering in the ear — oh, that’s it exactly. I have to be patient with them and see who they are. If I force them along too much, they come out like puppets instead of people.

    It’s a good list, though, for prompting that whisper. I use things like, “What’s the rottenest thing you’ve ever done?” and “What are you never going to do again, no matter what?” Stories can lie in the answers.

  8. This sounds like a great class Kate! Have fun with it. I need to know what my character wears, what music s/he likes, and whether s/he is a morning person or night owl. It’s also helpful for me to know how they got their first name. Not how I picked it out, but how their parents picked it out, if you know what I mean. Bible name? Family name? Sounded good with older sister’s name? That tells me a lot for some reason.

  9. Here are a few things that I’ve been thinking about for a character that I’m currently developing:

    What does the character think is funny (sarcasm, puns, etc)?
    What is the character’s response to someone’s humor that is different?
    What is the relationship of the character with parents/siblings?
    Who wants to be close to the character, but is not?
    What does each relationship mean for the plot (if anything)?

    With the story I’m currently working on, the character’s physical manifestation is actually the most difficult part and the decisions regarding what form the character takes will determine a lot of the plot. So, I wrote out all of the possibilities and what the consequences of each would be… sounds far more strategic than letting the character just be but, the for this story, the plot depends on it.

  10. Truth be told, many of the standard character questionnaires don’t work for me. I don’t get excited by knowing what my character’s favorite childhood toy was or what he had for dinner last night–and usually my character has no interest in telling me that, either.
    Instead, I turn over the keyboard to the character and let him ramble on about whatever he wants to talk about. Characters usually end up talking about what they really want or really fear. I type very quickly during this exercise, not stopping to judge anything the character says, just trying to channel the voice.

  11. Characters

    Sometimes I just try to walk through my day as my character (it keeps me from being bored in meetings, lines, and traffic). I think: would Josie wear this color? would she like cincinnati chili, I wonder? Would she be friends with someone like ______? Does she like to play with her hair like this woman next to me in the bathroom?

    It’s fun. It’s like living life twice.

  12. Re: Characters

    I do that, too, Tracie – I find myself shopping for them at garage sales, in fact. “Oh…she would love that scarf!” It IS fun! Hmm….maybe we could go through the Sunday newspapers ads as our characters and choose things they’d wish for!