Two Techniques for Creating Vivid Characters

This will be a bit of a simple post, since I'm currently fighting the flu. (Right now it's a draw, but I'm hoping to emerge the winner in a day or so!)

Creating a vividly drawn, unique, and interesting character... Where does a writer start? I want to propose two techniques for bringing the spark of a real, multi-faceted character to life. One I stole from F. Scott Fitzgerald. The other I stole from Sheryl Crow (and also JD Salinger, but mainly Sheryl Crow.)

Technique One - Fitzgerald - The "Start with a Person" Method:

Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, is widely known to have been the inspiration for the character of Daisy Buchanan, who in turn is believed to have been the inspiration for the "flappers" of the Roaring Twenties. Daisy was a unique, complex character, who didn't seem to borrow from the literary heroines who had come before her. Fitzgerald always upheld that his characters were unique because they started with an actual individual as their inspiration.

Fitzgerald said, "You can start with a person, and end up with a type; if you start with a type, you end up with nothing."

Technique Two - Crow (and Salinger) - The Judgmental Narrator Method:

Okay, maybe Sheryl Crow never taught character development to fiction writers, but she does deserve the credit for this next technique, since her song, "All I Wanna Do," inspired me to create characters in this particular way. Here's a quote from the song that exemplifies this technique:

"'All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die,'
Says the man next to me out of nowhere
It's apropos
Of nothing
He says his name's William but I'm sure,
He's Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy
And he's plain ugly to me
And I wonder if he's ever had a day of fun in his whole
We are drinking beer at noon on Tuesday
In a bar that faces a giant car wash
The good people of the world are washing their cars
On their lunch break, hosing and scrubbing
As best they can in skirts in suits

They drive their shiny Datsuns and Buicks
Back to the phone company, the record store too
Well, they're nothing like Billy and me..."

What I love about these lyrics is the way they not only describe "Billy," but they tell you an awful lot about the narrator at the same time. You learn about the narrator by her internal reactions to Billy - she doubts he really goes by William, even though it's the name he gives her, she considers him "just plain ugly," and she wonders if he's ever had a day of fun in his whole life. Just these thoughts about the man sitting next to the narrator at the bar give you a lot of insight into the narrator herself. The narrator continues with observations about the people washing their cars across the street. It's lunchtime, and while she and Billy are drinking beers, "the good people of the world" are washing their cars, "on their lunch break." Her final observation about the members of the car-washing crowd is that, "they're nothing like Billy and me."

Within this one stanza, Crow has created an idea in our minds of what kind of person Billy is, and even a bit about what kind of people are at the car wash, but she's created an even stronger sense of understanding in our minds of the sort of person the narrator is. A great example of a narrator who reveals himself through his observations of the people around him is Holden Caulfield in CATCHER IN THE RYE. Holden is quite willing to share the details of his opinion of almost every character who crosses his path, and by so doing, he reveals the most about himself. (Salinger, of course, deserves credit for inspiring this second technique, but to be fair, it is Sheryl Crow and "All I Wanna Do" that I turn to when I need to be reminded of this method.)

Do you have specific techniques or methods that you use to help you create vivid characters? Please share your ideas with me in the comments!


  1. I think when I "try" to write vivid characters, I usually try to create someone who I would find interesting in real life, taking bits of people I know, and meshing it all together.

    Several characters of mine resemble me at a time in my life, except much cooler, because I'll be honest; I was a total bore for the majority of my life. I have had other characters modeled after my sister or an ex-boyfriend's mom. My brothers also inspire me when I need to create convincing middle-school characters.

    Then, I have characters that are nothing like people I know. They're like that awesome person that you really want to meet, but for whatever circumstance, you can't. I like writing those people the best, because I can tell their story in my own way, rather than trying to identify them with someone I already know.

  2. @Brooke - I agree with you. I also borrow pieces of myself and the people close to me and use them in my characters. The best is when I finish a project and read it over and see me in someone I never intended to put myself in! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Only snippets of other, real people appear as parts of my characters--I think! An annoying quirk, a mannerism, a chatty trait, a shy introversion.

    I love the fact that characters interact with each other and reveal the main character in the process, as you mentioned. They also come to life on the pages, the more time you spend with them and get to know them.

  4. @Carol - I agree that the longer you spend with them on the page, the more they come to life. I think that's part of what's been tripping me up in my WIP. Since it started as a nano book, I didn't do a lot of the back story on my characters that I usually do - instead I dove in with page one. So now I'm going back and doing some of what is usually part of my "pre-writing" to get a better sense of who these strangers are! Thanks for the comment! :)

  5. Julie--I hope you have the flu beaten soon! Good question about characters...most of mine aren't completely based on real people, but facets of real people sneak in. For only one character can I really say I started with a person--and he evolved quite quickly away from that person so that only traces remain. I guess I start out thinking less about how a character "is" but more about what they do--I try to see how they act, hear how they speak. I guess I try to get to know them like I get to know friends--weird! Like they're real people :)

  6. @Rowenna - Is it weird to think of your characters as real people? Not that I do that, of course... *nervously looks around* What about talking out loud to them? Is that weird???

  7. @Julie--I was going to say I talk out loud to them. Or, um, as them. But I was worried I'd sound like too much of a goober!

  8. Very cool, Julie!

    I don't really start out with an idea of who my character is before I start writing. I just write and they come out :) Sometimes this takes several chapters, meaning there are going to be a lot of character inconsistencies in my first draft. The more I write, the more formed the character becomes!

    On the other hand, if it's a minor character and there isn't enough room to develop them fully in the book, then sometimes I'll write journal entry type things from their POV. This resulted in the complete 180 change of a character in HYBRID!

  9. @Kat - I can't wait to see which character in HYBRID is so changed! I honestly have to admit that I would find it very difficult to develop characters by your method... I'm not patient enough to wait for them to emerge over chapters. :) Susan Dennard sent me some character development worksheets she uses and I just got them yesterday. I really enjoy seeing how other writers address characterization. From these comments, it really seems like everyone's approach is unique. Thanks for commenting!

  10. Hi Julie! I awarded you a blog award on my site--come read about it and fetch the image at:
    Artzicarol Ramblings

  11. @Carol - Really? That is so sweet of you! Thank you so much!!!

  12. I love Sheryl Crow's song on my iPod, and now I'll think of this blog post every time I hear it. You're so right, that does reveal so much about EVERYONE in the song. Thanks for the tips! (I came here from Carol's blog...nice to find your blog too!)

  13. @Julie - Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Now we both owe Carol, because I've just started following your blog, too!!