Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Finding and Collecting Characters

by Bish Denham
author of Blind Ship in VOYAGERS anthology

If you have a hard time imagining characters or drawing them up out of thin air, maybe you need to start collecting them, like stamps or books. Characters are everywhere, like ants at a picnic. All you have to do is look around. They lurk within your family, hang out with your friends, skulk about your community, and flounce across your TV screen. They are in magazines and, nowadays, all over the internet.

Collecting characters is simple, easy, and fun. If you collect one a day, you’ll have 365 characters at the end of a year!

As you go about your daily routine, start looking at people. Notice what they’re doing, how they’re dressed, what they’re talking about. Every day, or once a week, look for one person to study, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Try not to be overt about this observing, you don’t want to make someone uncomfortable. Unless you have a great memory, take notes.

Maybe you saw a cashier who wasn’t smiling and seemed angry. She may have even upset you with her bad attitude. But, as a writer, it’s your job to be a dispassionate observer. Your notes might read something like this: “Black haired, over-roughed cashier. Mid to late 50s. Dark eyes. Frown lines between eyebrows and at corners of mouth. Clipped, abrupt speech. Seemed angry. Never smiled.”

When you have more time, you can flesh out her skeleton. Start asking yourself questions. “Why was she so sour? Has she always been this way? If so, what made her so unhappy? Did she just get some bad news? Didn’t she get enough sleep? Does she have worries weighing on her mind?” Give her a story, give her an excuse for being the way she was. Write it down. Describe her physical appearance in more detailed. Make it up if you want. What was she wearing? Did she have a wedding band. Maybe she’s recently divorced. Were her nails manicured or not? Give her a mannerism. Maybe she has the nervous habit of chewing on her lower lip. Lastly give your character sketch a title or name. How about, “The Sour Cashier” or “Mabel’s Bad-Hair Day.”

As you gather and write up character sketches, organize them as you want. I’m old school, I use a three-ring binder with dividers and have a few basic categories: women, girls, boys, men. You can be more specific if you want to: old men, extraterrestrials, teen-girls, toddlers, bully boys. You get the picture.
So, now you have a bunch of people on paper. What next? Maybe you have a great idea for a story, but you can’t picture the main character. Or maybe you have a great main character, but you need a couple of side-kicks. Get out your file, it’s a giant mall. You can browse it like a shopper. You can mix and match bits and pieces and make a whole new persona.


But wait! There’s more! Maybe you need an idea. This is where the titles or names of your sketches may light the match that starts a creative fire.

Something else I do is collect names. Any kind of name that’s unique or different or interesting. I organize them, too: place names, magical names, foreign names, people names, animal names, etc.

Now you can find the perfect name to fit your perfect character to act out your perfect story.

Have fun and break a pencil!


Bish Denham is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where her family has lived for over a hundred years. The author of two middle grade novels and a collection of retold Jamaican Anansi stories, she says, “Growing up in the islands was like living inside a history book.”  Learn more about Bish at her blog bish-randomthoughts.blogspot.

2 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Those are great ideas! We do run into so many people in the course of a day.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

One Sunday at church could fill up the notebook for months. LOL