Where Do Characters Come From?

There are two camps on the origin of characters. Some writers tell you they are “my creation.” Others say the characters exist somewhere, and they have a way to get into your head. If you’ve read the blurb for Summer at the Crossroads and seen the character guest posts, you know what I think.

To me, the process is like building a tunnel. The characters have a way to break through to my consciousness. At first the connection is limited — maybe only enough to get a few ideas into my head. We can just shake hands through the small opening. But they keep digging, I start digging, and the tunnel widens. After a while, more information comes through, and the plot becomes clearer. And the information flow goes two ways. We can “walk” into each other’s worlds and get to know one another.

But just like people in our world, not all characters make it easy. For Summer at the Crossroads, Catherine and her other selves are very much in my head. They let me know in no uncertain terms who’s writing the book — and it isn’t me.

Catherine and Kathryn are always patient, even when I stumble on what they say or how they act. Katarina is chatty and willing to share lots of information — except for the serious undercurrents in life. But we need those elements, and the time came when she had to admit her story wasn’t all fun. Katharine, though, will go silent and stew while I find my way through her story and personality. Even though this was my first novel, she’s never cut me any slack. If I don’t portray her just right, she’ll toss up a brick wall on her story. I’m grateful for that. It’s made me a better writer.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, it’s no surprise that Madeleine and Jack of Death Out of Time don’t act the same way. Remember — they went from science fiction to mystery back to science fiction. And they’ve never pushed me as hard as the folks in the other book. They give a few ideas and then wander off while I flesh out some scenes. Then they’ll look over what I’ve written and suggest revisions. Later, they’ll give me a few more scenes, and we’ll repeat the process.

Maybe that’s why the two books have such different feels to them. The writing, tone, and approach are all different because the characters are all different. That’s even carrying into the sequels. It’ll be interesting to see how future books unfold as new characters find their way into my head.

Oh, yes. Let’s not forget the new characters who come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet.

There’s one in Death Out of Time. I can’t say who without revealing too much. But I can’t explain the feeling I had when I wrote the first scene with him. Where did he come from? There was a history here that I never knew about. We were back to science fiction, but the future of the book (and series potential) took an unexpected twist.

Who are you? I asked when I finished that scene. He just smiled in his way, put a finger to my lips, and said, You’ll see.

And that’s why I love writing by the seat of my pants. Those moments of sheer excitement as new characters reveal themselves and their new plot elements are pure magic to me. I wouldn’t want them any other way.

How about you? Where do your characters come from? Do you have a favorite who appeared out of nowhere and turned the story upside down? Or have you carefully crafted each one to fit your story? Do they yell at you? Tease you? Get jealous of others?

13 thoughts on “Where Do Characters Come From?

  1. I have no idea where they come from, I guess my mind? I just start writing and they say “Hi!”

    I get a vague idea, and then I write, and then they tell me who they are.

    For example, there’s Sayla and the others in Abstaining from Permanence. I didn’t intend for her to have OCD. It just, happened. She controls it fairly well, except when she’s stressed. In the next edit I’ll make sure it’s more profound, because there is a lot of stress in the beginning and, she didn’t tell me about it until later in the story.

    I didn’t know how charismatic Ryder acted until I wrote him. He lies to everyone, though, usually to sleep with them; but he does have a heart. He wouldn’t sleep with someone who he knew would hurt even more to never hear back from him, because he does make people feel better.

    On the other hand, Sammy told me from the beginning she had a drinking problem because of the changes she was seeing the world. When she met the group Sayla and Ryder were a part of, she didn’t have time to drink anymore. But she didn’t tell me until I wrote the story she grew up in foster care because of who her parents were, which even I didn’t know until her father said “HI!” to me.

    And this is why I love them. They keep me surprised.

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    • Your characters’ attitudes sound similar to some of mine. Maybe they’re tunneling through the subatomic universe to get to you like mine do…. 😉

      Much as I love the surprises, sometimes it would be nice if they’d mention some of those major issues up front, though. Mihailo did WHAT during the war? Okay, major revision to Katarina’s story line!

      I love your title, Abstaining from Permanence. I think it will make people reach out to take it from the shelf for a closer look.

      Take care!

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  2. Mine are mixed, mostly depending on how the book idea comes to me. Fay and Tavis (from Dark Mirror) came after the idea nugget that started the book. I had to hunt around for them a bit, and Tavis still argues with me sometimes. We’re learning to work together though. But I did have to go digging for them, and I had to feel around in the dark for who they were.

    On the other hand, I have one that’s still developing the story but the main two characters are right there, in the flesh. I even know what they wear on a daily basis. Helixas (Helix to everyone outside his family) came to me all on his own, a flash of an image and then him explaining himself while I frantically took notes to keep up. His girlfriend, Jayna, is just as bad, but keeps playing hide and seek with me on a few things. She’s playing coy, I swear :p

    The funny thing is that sometimes I know something has to happen in the story, and it isn’t until I find out something about my characters that I understand *why* that thing has to happen. In fact, Fay cause the need to rewrite my first draft of Dark Mirror entirely when she finally explained something very central to herself. It turned a fundamental thing on its head. Much better story as a result though, so I try not to hate her for making me throw out 107k words. 🙂

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    • Wow, I’ve had some rewrites to do, but to toss out 107k words? That kind of character owes you a really good new story!

      It looks like characters’ approaches to their writers are as varied as their personalities.

      Thanks for the follow — I’m looking forward to checking out more of your work, too!

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      • Well, she and Tavis were right, and I was wrong. I’m a big enough woman to admit it. I recently finished editing the new draft that replace the 107k and it is far better, like I said, so I don’t mind. Also, I learned a lot in the process of writing that draft, so I view it as a necessary precursor, for a lot of reasons.

        I think it’s simply a case of process is different for all writers. Some are similar, but I doubt any two are the same. It’s taken me a lot of years to realize that, though fortunately not as much time to find my process which seems to work for me once I did realize it.

        And thank you! One of the things I like about WordPress is getting to know other writers, and in fact, other people in general. Often gives me food for thought, as it were.

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        • I’m a firm believer in the idea that no writing is wasted. Even if we can’t recycle it for something else, the act of writing it makes us better.

          This is a great place to meet other writers — and my upcoming Tuesday post is actually along those lines.

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  3. I’m not sure I can say exactly where my characters come from, other than maybe a “cerebral spark”, but what always surprises me is how quickly they become real. I half expect to see one seated in the passenger seat next to me!

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    • Hmm, passenger seat. For me it’s places that I use in the books, like some of the Smithsonian Museums or a restaurant where the characters are eating. When I go there, I expect to see them!

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  4. Guess that’s why you are a writer – you see/hear the characters….do you theink maybe they are in a parallel universe and “breaking through” somehow?… maybe writing you in as a character in their novels in their world?

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    • I definitely lean to their existence in another universe — If nothing else, it’s a fun idea to play with, don’t you think?

      Writing me and others) into their novels — now that’s something I never thought of before…. Maybe some parts of my life would be interesting if they took some literary liberties and spiced them up a lot!

      If they do exist “out there” and can break through, then I think we’re all fair game for their stories!

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  5. I love love love your tunnel analogy. perfectly put. My characters come as a concept, then then flesh themselves out over months before I actually put fingertips to keyboard. They are parts of me that break off and evolve into their own beings.

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    • Oh, most of my main characters would never give me months to think about them before I sit down to type — LOL! How nice of yours to be so polite! Maybe they could give some etiquette lessons to mine? 😉

      But oh yes — they evolve into their own beings even before the first draft is done. And then some of them get even bossier with me 😉

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