Fiction Characters: Do You Need A Mental “No Vacancy” Sign?

Do your fictional characters keep you awake at night?It is 3:57 in the morning. Do you know where your characters are? If you are like most writers, you know exactly where they are because they refuse to let you get a proper nights sleep, or bath, or read, or time alone to enjoy the minutiae of life.

Once you have given life to someone, sometimes they do not shut up. I find this to be true of children, and characters. I rarely get to spend my hour commute listening to the radio, or relaxing with the windows rolled down and my mind on mute. As soon as the fiction characters in my latest story realize I’m alone the chatter starts.

The first time this happened to me, I was sure I was schizophrenic. When I stopped at each red light while driving, I tried to jot down an idea but, by then the characters had told their friends that I was free, and I forgot what I was noting in the first place.

Forget taking a bath. I used to think the kids, and the dog were most deft at keeping me from taking a bath alone. No, it is the antagonist calling to say he is ready to kill my main character, and by the way, …I need to shave my legs.

Sleeping can be like running a relay race. When I sleep someone shouts something into my psyche, and I have to jump up to write. My best stuff comes at 3:00 A M decidedly, because like an infant, that is when my fiction characters are awake. After I have pecked the brainstorm into my computer, I head back to bed. Usually, I can fall back asleep. At least until, the protagonist finds out what his adversary said about him.

When I first started writing, it drove me mad to share my brain with all the people who were crashing my psychological party. Now, when I’m done with a story, and things get quiet, I have let down.

I want to throw up the No Vacancy Sign!I sit in the tub and wait for someone to say something. Then I lay in bed, and listen to the quiet wishing my fiction characters would “throw me a bone.” When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount of jabber going on in my brain, and I want to throw up the NO VACANCY sign, I remember how lonely I am without them.

I just flipped my sign over, reads Vacancy – welcome all night owls. I’ll probably catch you all at about 2:30…in the morning.

Do your fiction characters keep you awake at night? When was the last time you were able to have a relaxing bath or drive from one side of town to the other without their company? How do you deal with the lack of mental vacancies?

Photo Credit: Nathan Barry
Photo Credit: DG Jones

Character Development: When Back-Story Isn’t Enough

As writers, most of us already know that solid character development is key to a solid story. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to go about making robust characters: observe the people around you, create character charts, make sure you know your character’s back-story, etc.

It’s all great advice. For instance, I love filling out character sheets because they prompt me to think up things like nervous habits and identifying marks that I might not have given my character otherwise, but that make them that much more real.

And, of course, you have to know their back-story. If Sally is a runaway in chapter one who’s been homeless since she was ten, you can’t have her talking about the wonderful new bedroom decorations her mother gave her at age eleven.

But what do you do when that’s just not giving you what you need? When all of that planning doesn’t yield a direction for your character? I have two methods I use, and I adore them both.

First, and my favorite, is to imagine what happens to them after the story ends. This is especially helpful when I’m trying to choose from a couple of story endings, but that’s not the only time I use it. It’s an easy past-time: don’t write anything down, just pick a scene in your head and follow it to its logical conclusion. Maybe it’s a love story and two of your characters end up together. What happens when they have their first child? Or your entire star-ship crew just got back from an epic space-battle; how does that impact their view of the world ten years down the road?

My second trick takes a little more time, but can still be just as fun. I write a short story (actually writing this time, not just daydreaming) that places my stubborn character in an alternate universe. I ask myself “what if Conner were born in modern America, instead of ancient Greece, and was the son of the devil?”. All of the basic character traits stay the same, but he has to interact with a whole new set of people and world rules.

Those are just two ways I help give characters more depth – and figure out how they might react in my current story when I’m stuck for ideas. What methods do you use for character development and to make stubborn characters speak to you?

Fictional Character Names: Six Techniques For Name Creation


I have no name: I am but two days old. What shall I call thee? ~ William Blake

When you first meet a new fictional character, she will often reveal herself slowly. Maybe first, a mental image of her general appearance, or a quick glimpse at her situation and goals. You feel excited as you begin to plan your story or outline, and rush to your keyboard or notebook.

Before that first sentence is written, you come upon an unsettling discovery. You don’t know your character’s name! Often, new characters are not forthcoming with their names, and you have to rack your brain to come up with one, instantly short-circuiting the writing process.

A name is a crucial yet overlooked part of the author’s decision making process. People form associations with different names, and a character named “Sir William T. Rutherford of Devonshire” will create a different impression from one named “Willie McGee”. Here are some considerations when naming a fictional character.

Fictional Character Naming Techniques

  1. Consider your story’s setting. Odd place to start, right? A modern day setting lends itself to names we are all familiar with, while a historical setting often has more elaborate names, including the character’s title and homeland. In a futuristic story, a fictional characters name can be as familiar or fantastical as you desire!
  2. Research the setting. If your story is in a small town, it’s quite possible that you could unintentionally come up with the name of a real human being. A quick trip to the yellow pages can save you a lot of grief later on in the writing process. Historical stories also face the problem of copying the name of a real world figure, although some writers do choose to incorporate public figures into their novels.
  3. Compare other character names. If you’ve already named a few of your characters, review how their names work together. Their name can give subtle clues about your characters’ ethnicity, social status, and how they see themselves (in the case of nicknames). Look out for alliteration! Readers can become confused when multiple characters’ names start with the same letter.
  4. Browse baby naming books and websites. Hundreds of thousands of names can be found in baby naming literature, saving both parents and writers a lot of time and trouble. They often including name meanings and origins, which can help your character portray the right characteristics.
  5. Examine your friends’ and family members’ names – for names not to choose! No one wants to try to explain to a loved one that they did not write a story about them. Play it safe, and put those names on your permanent “Do Not Name” list.
  6. Create your own name. If nothing is calling out to you, you can always piece together your own name. Science fiction and fantasy novels often include otherworldly names, which look like a random mishmash of syllables. As long as your name follows conventional linguistic patterns, readers should be able to pronounce the name to themselves while reading. (A tip: No more than three consonants go in a row without a vowel in most English words.)

How do you decide on your characters’ names? Do they come fully equipped with names, or do you have to coax them out? Have you ever created your own name? Share your techniques here!

Recommended: Five more tips for writers on naming fictional characters at BabyNames.com

Photo Credit: 05-28-06 © Ronald Bloom

Talent Casting: Audition Your Fiction Character

Selecting the talent. Casting the fiction characters of your story.Writing fiction is sometimes about finding the right talent, casting the right fiction character for the role, or creating a cast of rich and multi-dimensional personalities. There are a number of character creation methods and each writer learns their most effective character development tools through research and experience. My own process continues to grow and develop as my writing grows up.

Click here to get your copy of James Chartrand and Taylor Lindstrom's How to Create Believable CharactersA few months ago I bought myself a clever e-book called “How to Create Believable Characters” by James Chartrand and Taylor Lindstrom. It’s packed with practical information on how to build your very own fiction character, or role-playing alter-ego, from scratch. I read it eagerly, already fascinated with character development and creation.

As I read, I drank in every piece of advice it offered. I gained a better understanding of why I write the way I write and I improved my character creation skills. I learned how to choose and create talent; casting the “right” protagonist for each fiction story.

There are two “schools” when writing fiction. One is a “plot-driven” story where you develop an intense plot, a situation into which you place characters. I am in the other “school”, a writer who discovers a protagonist first and then writes a plot that gives that star her life and purpose. This is a ‘character-driven’ story. Can you think of any “character-driven stories” you’ve read recently?

Who is she?

When I first decide to write a new story, I visualize my heroine. Most of the time it’s a ‘she’, simply because I’m used to thinking like a girl. I do know female writers who prefer to write male characters (and do a fantastic job of it too) but for some reason I prefer writing women.

My heroine may be young or old, clever, stupid, pretty, dull… I spend some time trying to get to know her. I don’t decide ‘how she is’ instead, I get a feel for ‘who she is’.

Who is your protagonist?There are some elements I decide up front. Is she stubborn, or reckless, or depressed? I follow my instincts and she becomes whatever most sparks my interest at that time.

Other aspects come naturally as I continue to think about her. It might fit her to be afraid of dogs; maybe she is a school teacher. Does she have any particular talent casting her into the spotlight? Is she likely to go for the bad boy type, or does she prefer the office underdog. (Oh, perhaps she would usually go for the bad boy type but falls for the office underdog!)

Becoming Herself

After developing my protagonist’s traits and personality, I give my fiction character a life. Some of her past was determined earlier in the character creation process. Now it is time to explore her history and to decide what has happened to shape her into the person she is. Plot elements begin to emerge as her life takes form.

Here’s where it gets tricky. After the fun of writing, planning, and mapping out my heroine’s intriguing story, I notice aspects of her that no longer “fit”. As I focus on plot development I sometimes find that, this protagonist isn’t right for this plot.

Why not add that lacking ‘something’ to my original character? That would be the obvious and easy way to fix my dilemma, wouldn’t it? Couldn’t we force her to be what we want, gift her with that particular skill or talent? Casting her into a role that doesn’t suit her, however, is not a simple solution.

My characters become “real” the minute I start developing them, which means they have their own faults, traits, and personality. They are imperfect in a carefully balanced way – each and every one is unique.

Giving my heroine a new flaw or quality, just because the plot calls for it and not because it feels a part of her, causes her to lose that sense of being “real”. It makes her thin, stiff, two-dimensional; the organic creation process has been broken.

(There is of course another side to this. The needed flaw or quality could be a part of her in-story development or personal development goals… But that is for another post.)

It’s Talent Casting Time!

Now, I have this great story, all lined up for exploring and turning into a masterpiece, but my protagonist just isn’t right for the part. Do I scratch it and start over? No way!

I do a talent casting call.

I have tons of talent on hold that got dumped from other stories because they didn’t fit. Are any of them perfect for this role? If none of those characters are suitable, I think about which traits this protagonist needs and make that aspect a starting point for a new rising star.

By now I’ve changed the story several times and every time I do another call. I change the story a little for every character. After auditioning many people for the job they have all influenced the final story and add to it’s richness and depth.

Once I’ve my found leading lady, I can begin talent casting the supporting roles.

While this method can be time consuming in the early planning stages of fiction writing, the outcome is a full cast of strong characters I know and understand like old friends. They are the “right” characters for their specific role and are a good fit for the story. The writing process becomes easier because I’m no longer struggling with uncooperative, pigeon-holed characters. Now, when I’m writing fiction, I don´t “decide” my character likes or does things, I “know” she does.

The Final Curtain Call

In the end, my story becomes both plot-driven and character-driven. It is packed with a powerful selection of multi-dimensional, realistic personalities. The cast of characters live their own lives and I record it rather than control it.

Have you tried talent casting your characters? What other methods have you used to develop the star of your story?

Click here to get your copy of James Chartrand and Taylor Lindstrom's How to Create Believable Characters

Photo Credit: 01-12-10 © John-Francis Bourke
Photo Credit: 04-10-07 © Sean Locke

Piece Together Characters From Family Members

Character Traits Pieced Together From FamilyOne of my favorite aspects of writing is character creation. I usually start my stories due to an interesting character popping into my mind, with a story to share. Often, I’ll know right away what they look like, what their general outlook on life is, and what their goals are.

However, I may not know what their favorite breakfast food is, what nervous habits they have, or their belief system. Some character attributes may not be needed in the preliminary stages of writing, but if I don’t know them up front, it can cause problems later on in the story. If I don’t know that the antagonist killed their parents in a war twenty years ago, then I have no idea why she is so determined to stop his reign of tyranny now.

Borrowing Attributes From Family

If I am unsure of my character’s attributes and motivations, I turn to an unending source of human characteristics – my friends and family. It doesn’t get more realistic than using actual traits and habits that other people have. However, you need to ensure that you don’t make a character who is exactly like your Uncle Bob, and ends up leaving his wife and developing a drug addiction. That could be perceived as slander, and cause ill will and even court cases between family members.

To avoid that possibility, I take observed characteristics and play mix and match. I might take my best friend’s eye twitch, add on my grandfather’s quiet attitude, and place those traits onto my protagonist’s thirty year old love interest. That way, there is no possibility of anyone seeing themselves within one character.

Also, allow the characteristics to change and grow throughout your story. Whereas my friend might twitch her eye when she is angry, my love interest character would twitch his eye when he is lying instead. His silent streak, borrowed from my grandfather, could go away completely by the end of the story, as he opens up and learns to trust the heroine.

Observe People Everywhere

Of course, family and friends aren’t the only possible sources for character creation. Inspiration is everywhere! Take your notebook and go to a crowded cafe, mall, or park. Make notes to yourself about specific attributes that catch your eye. Add these into the mix along with those traits you picked from your family, and you will have a completely different character. Even television, music, and online friends offer more character possibilities.

Once you’ve compiled your character, you might want to write out a character creation sheet, that lists all of the facts about the character that you know so far. This can range from hair and eye color, to identifiable habits, to primary and secondary motivations. Whatever you need for your story, you can outline, and add to or subtract from as necessary.

To further ensure that your character is differentiated enough from your family, write a short story that shows a “Day in the Life” of your hero. Let your family and friends read it, and see if they identify with the hero. If they do, you may need to change a few traits.

Have you ever drawn from real life people to create a character? What are your tips to ensuring you get just the right blend of fact and fiction?

Image Credit: egarc2