Creating Characters

“A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.” Caryl Phillips

I passed her every evening on my way home from work. No matter the weather, she wore the same oversized khaki coat and blue winter hat, her hair pulled back into a careless bun, no makeup. If I had to guess I’d say she was probably in her mid 60’s.

We’d cross paths in the same place, same time, every evening. I didn’t know where she came from or where she was going. I knew nothing about her. Perhaps that is why she fascinated me.

When I changed jobs, I took a different route to work and didn’t see the woman anymore. A couple months passed and I forgot about her. Then, just the other day, I was on my way to town when I saw the khaki coat and winter hat. An odd sense of familiarity rose up in me as we passed. How strange, I thought to myself. I don’t even know this woman yet, dare I admit it, I miss passing her on my walks home. She was an unusual person, captivating, full of mystery. Since I knew nothing about her, I’d imagined the possibilities—she was an environmentalist and cat lover from Romania…a primary school teacher who loved to cook…a homeless widow who’d lost her job at a factory. A wealth of characters and plots had sprung up, all because of this stranger. One day I hope she makes it into one of my stories.

What I love most about creating characters is that despite their fictional existence, they hold a nearness to the living, breathing folk we fashion them after. Think of all the societies and clubs that have sprung up in honor of beloved book characters— people who do not exist. We identify with them, often seeing ourselves or others in their likeness. It seems that good writing, though it may be categorized as fiction, is in fact a sharing of truth—what we know to be real about life and living.

Perhaps in this way, we write not only to share our knowledge of life, but to know we are part of something bigger. One of my undergrad professors always encouraged her students to view writing as an ongoing dialog of the world. When we wrote, she challenged us to ask ourselves, “How am I contributing to what has already been said?”

Characters are a vital contribution to a successful story, as well as a pulpit from which the author can share a unique tête-à-tête with their reader. Characters inform, influence, and can even make a reader laugh or cry. And they do so because of their realness. Characters are the thing a reader connects with, and often what they remember long after the story is finished. Ultimately, it is not a characters function in the plot (what they do) that makes them truly memorable; it is who they are.

Creating characters is kind of like being a mad scientist. We gather bits and pieces of humanity and fashion them into this creature we hope will spring to life on the page. More often than not the experiment fails. But with a bit of ingenuity, we as writers are able to breath life into a character. And if we are lucky, in a remarkable exchange, our characters return the favor, creating a connected awareness not only of the story’s heartbeat, but also of our own.