Ruth E. Walker
Sometimes, the people I create for my novels and stories wake me up at night. They rattle around in my head like restless spirits and refuse to quiet down until I write a scene they’ve been waiting for.
Wait a minute. A scene they’ve been waiting for?
Exactly. I guess that’s how real they’ve managed to become in my imagination. So real that my subconscious gives them room to believe themselves to be alive.
All writers discover and develop their characters by a variety of approaches, each as unique as the writer themselves. But sometimes, our imaginations can use a little help.
For one of my workshops, I developed a simple and fun exercise for finding a new character. It works for villains, heroes, secondary folks, and even walk-on characters. Use it any time you hit a wall and need a nudge to add new people to a story or scene. It can even help when you have no idea what you’re going to write: bingo! a character to build a story around…all from a recipe.
Follow the recipe
1 cup of a real person: I find a visual source most helpful (a magazine photograph, portrait in an art gallery or people-watching expedition) Perhaps for you, there’s a person in history — recent or long ago — who has fascinated you. Whoever you choose, it’s time to build a story character from an image. Note some vital statistics about this person, (age, gender, eye & hair colour, etc.)
Then go a bit deeper into who they are (family, education, social position/job, hobbies, favourite foods, pets, etc.) Allow your imagination to take you to counter-intuitive places: thing — and people — are never completely what they appear to be on the surface.
Finally, answer three questions:
- what does this person want?
- what does this person actually need?
- what does this person fear the most?
Of course, this outline of a person is open to change once you start to write the story. But by this point, you should have a sense of a personality coming to life. All you need now is to add the rest of the ingredients.
1 cup of story idea: Maybe your new character has inspired a story idea already but if not, here’s a quick option: choose a central theme (quest, coming of age, gods vs humans, humans vs nature, etc.) and a genre (romance, sci-fi, contemporary, literary, thriller, historical, etc.) Write down the theme and genre (or blend of genres) and add in a few lines about the possibilities to come (escape of star-crossed lovers, a search for a missing “x”; a defense of a territory; a coronation gone wrong, etc.)
2/3 cup of setting: place, era, season, time of day. Here’s where you add in some sensory elements: temperature, quality of the light, smells in the air, sounds near and distant, etc.
1/4 cup of backstory: Careful, too much backstory up front and it will overtake your story stew. Go for subtle flavours: a hint of betrayal, a whiff of loss, a sprinkle of insecurity or shame.
Flavour bouquet: Just like that cheesecloth bag of spices in your chili sauce, here’s where you can mix up an interesting blend for your new-found character. Characteristics. Idiosyncrasies. Behaviours. Qualities of goodness and evil because no person is completely honourable, good and kind. And all of it affects the kind of person you are cooking up.
The garnish: An exciting way to serve up your character is through a line of dialogue. A few intriguing words can be all you need to set in motion a scene for your character.
Make it more than parsley on the plate: “Quick man! Jump overboard or die!” “Before the three moons rise, I promise to find your starship.” “My lady, the castle road and all who travelled it are gone.”
Of course, like any recipe, it’s always open to personal preference. So go ahead and experiment. Add new ingredients. Use more spice. Go heavy with the garnish. The point to all this is to muck about in the kitchen of your creativity and see what ends up on your page. At the very least, you’ll have something on the table that you’ve never had before. Hopefully, it’s one tasty treat.
If you want to cook up more characters or spice up ones you already have, Ruth’s offering a one-day workshop Create Compelling Characters on June 15 at her Riverside Cottage property in Haliburton. Registration is open now.