It’s a subject I was curious about as a young reader, and one that still fascinates me now that I’ve written several novels. Where do these story people come from, anyway?

Characters have been born in my imagination in any number of ways. In fact, I doubt any two protagonists I’ve let loose on the pages of a story have come to me in the same way. Character and story are sometimes so intertwined it’s difficult to tell which came first, but sometimes a character is born before her story is. I’ve had them pop into my mind as an image of a person going about her day, complete with her full name. Then I had to let her occupy space in my thoughts for months to discover who she was and what might be the story she wanted to tell. But I’ve had it work the other way. Another character began as a shadow, a certain type of person I felt needed to inhabit and tell the story I had already envisioned. Again it required much thinking for this character to reveal himself to me. 

Once a character remained all but inanimate until I finally hit upon the right name. Then she gently showed me she had a will of her own, and completely overturned the journey I had planned for her.

Still another remained “off” somehow; no matter how many scenes I wrote from her POV, she seemed distant to me, not as real or unique as I knew her to be. Then one weekend I went on a hike with friends. Coming down the mountain our group was staggered out. I was walking alone, passing through a thicket of buck brush and watching small birds dart through tangled branches (I could probably still find the precise spot on that trail) when the words “Mama was the first of Mountain Laurel’s slaves to know about the letter,” flit through my mind like one of those birds in the thicket, and I knew I was hearing that character’s voice truly for the first time. And I knew at once what the problem had been. I’d been writing her in third person when I should have been writing her in first person. Perhaps my subconscious had been screaming for my attention for some time, and it took getting away into the outdoors, alone and undistracted, to finally hear. I rushed home to write down what I heard, and knew I finally knew that character.

Here’s what two well known writers have to say on the genesis of their characters:

Madeleine L’Engle.

“Where do the imaginary people who live, who love, who die, come from? Are they, in fact, imaginary? Well, the answer is paradoxical. No, they’re not imaginary. They’re real. They have lives of their own. Most novelists will agree that their characters are stubborn and willful. They do thing which the writer never anticipated. And when a writer and a character have a clash of will, the writer would do well to listen to the character.” 

“A character in a story may well be an amalgam of many people, some well known to the writer, some simply observed. And the creative-below-the-surface mind will do the underwater work and send the character up to the surface when needed. It’s a mysterious act of collaboration between intellect and intuition.”

“Sometimes a character I thought of at first as being dark-haired and short will reveal himself to be fair and tall. And if I pin him down on a file card, he isn’t free to change and let me know what he really looks like. Not that I don’t take notes on the people who come to me. I do. I think about them for months or years. I write about them on slips of paper which usually get lost. I describe them in my journals. They reveal themselves to me, show new facets.”

One of my favorite explanations of how characters come to be is from Diana Gabaldon, and can be found in her Outlandish Companion, in which she talks of three types of characters, Mushrooms, Onions, and Hard Nuts.

Mushrooms: “I’ve found that a lot of characters do pop up like mushrooms…. I’ll be slogging along, hoping to dig myself into the day’s work, and all of a sudden this… person shows up out of nowhere and walks off with the whole scene. No need to ask questions, analyze, or consciously “create”; I just watch in fascination, to see what he’ll do next.”

Onions: “Other characters were conceived before I wrote them, and were consciously intended to serve some specific purpose in the story. However, once I began to write them, they obligingly came to life and started acting on their own…. One may not know everything about an onion at once, but rather discover him little by little, by writing multiple scenes involving him, or by thinking about him and figuring out bits of his personal history.”

Hard Nuts: “Beyond mushrooms and onions are hard nuts. These are the most difficult characters for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural–they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of the role that they play.” 

I recognize my own characters’ genesis in all of this, but no matter how a character is born in my imagination, no matter how much I ponder their life history, their personality, their issues, strengths, quirks, and scars, it’s not until I begin to write them and see them living on the page, surprising me with unexpected actions and words, that I truly start to know them. Most of my characters develop like Diana’s onions, though just lately I’ve had an unusually abundant crop of mushrooms spring up and threaten to overtake all my good story intentions!

Have you had a character come into being in an unusual way, or by a means other than those I’ve mentioned or quoted?

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