Character Inspiration for Writers

October 22, 2013 at 9:48 pm

characters“How do you come up with the characters for your novels?”
This isn’t the most common question that is asked of me, but it is one of the more interesting for me to answer. I wish I could say that the characters are well thought out ahead of time and painstakingly sculpted by design into the people they portray within my work, but the truth is that, for me at least, the characters come spontaneously with the scenes that unfold in my mind. It would be those scenarios or storylines, and the characters required within those moments, that come to me when inspiration hits.


For example, I recently had an idea to write a story about a person, the kind of person who has done some truly terrible acts while in the process of fighting for the legal, moral and justifiable right. Unfortunately, the violence of the life this person leads catches up with him and ends his life. His spirit finds itself at a crossroads in the afterlife because the universe doesn’t care about borders or politics or even the fabricated laws of human beings. All the universe cares about are the basic truths, one of which is simply not to do harm to others under any circumstances beyond self-preservation. Essentially, and despite the fact that the character has always tried to do the right thing regardless of the methods, he has still damned himself. Enter now the “angelic” intervention where the character is offered an opportunity to be spared damnation by serving as an enforcer of heaven. The “catch” is that damnation is always going to be in his future, he has no hope of redemption and this opportunity will only serve as a reprieve from his final destination. He is sent back to earth as a mortal and, with no help or divine intervention from heaven, will have to work tirelessly for heaven until he is killed again or fails an assignment and is sent to eternal damnation.

Now that is the idea that came to me and, frankly, it may not seem to be the most original idea on the surface. There have been several works on the “tightrope-walking” servant of the after-life, teetering on the brink of salvation or damnation. In the comic book series “Constantine” (later made into a movie starring Keanu Reeves) the lead character is in a similar situation as he faces down demons that plague humanity while he is dying of cancer and knowing that his eventual destination, once the cancer takes him, is hell. My take on the story is going to be very different than this, and it is this new approach that I hope to be very fresh and original; however, it was the scene regarding the initial “conversation” between the character and the “angel” that has inspired me thus far.

My point here is that the character is less the inspiration for the story than the situation the character finds himself in. In other words, it is the scene and the needs of the story that take precedence for me and inspire me to write. Certainly I will have to “flesh out” all of the characters at some point, but the story will shape them more than will any sort of particular initial insight regarding said characters.

I always say the story takes on a life of it’s own and, in my work, this is how the characters come to life regardless of whether they are major characters or supporting cast. It is the story that brings them into being, shapes them and molds them into whatever they become. My job as a writer is to make them as “three dimensional” and realistic a character as I can so they “come to life” on the page.