Characters “Ripped From the Headlines”

How do you find your characters?

Everyone asks me this question.  But then, I ask it of every other writer, too.  Well, why not?  Finding great characters is a real challenge. 

A fortunate few writers have brains that are naturally crowded with characters.  Joyce Magnin, for instance, says, “I’ve got people in my head. Sheesh. I always figured if I was living during the Middle Ages I’d be thrown in a snake pit mental hospital.”  Lucky Joyce!  (Both that she didn’t live in the Middle Ages, and also that she has all those characters fighting for her attention.) 

Most of us, however, have to dig for memorable characters. 

Where to dig?  Here are some suggestions:

  • News stories:  No one is more interesting than real people.  I once saw a short article in a San Jose, California, newspaper about a man who had been stopped by a policeman for driving alone in the diamond (commuter) lane.  The man argued that he wasn’t really alone because his dog Queenie was in the passenger seat.  The policeman said Queenie didn’t count.  The man insisted she certainly did because he is legally blind and he depends on Queenie to bark when he gets too close to another car.  Now, I ask you, doesn’t that driver have all the makings of a great character?
  • Other news stuff: Linda Clare says she gets inspiration from reading the obituaries.  The stranger the names, the more drawn she is.   Personally, I like those online listings of “stupidest criminals” and such.  They give a real glimpse into the fringes of our society.  Keep your eyes open and a file folder ready for the oddities of life that grab you.
  • History:  When I was researching Once Blind: The Life of John Newton (biography of the author of Amazing Grace), I virtually “met” a slave trading couple who had held John Newton as a slave in the 1700s.  The man was an English ship captain and his wife was African.  I modeled my Grace in Africa trilogy characters Joseph Winslow and Lingongo (The Call of Zulina) after that couple.   For book 3 of the Grace in Africa trilogy, The Triumph of Grace (to be released Spring 2011), I modeled characters after two sisters who were part of the underground railroad.
  • People you know:  One time, at a college reunion, a guy I knew told an experience from his childhood that became the main character–and, in fact, the entire plotline–of a movie script. Were he to see that movie, he would have no idea it was about him because the character has evolved so far from who he is.  But it was his story that planted the seed.  (Yes, I did tell him.  And in that case, I did ask his permission.)
  • Ask:  “What if…?”  Linda Clare says she asks when she reads news stories:  “How did this person get into this predicament?  What if…?”  I asked when I read about the slave trading couple who held John Newton:  “What if they’d had a daughter?  Which world would she be in, English or African?  Would she be slave or slave owner?  Where would her loyalties lie?”  What if… questions can open up a whole new world of character possibilities.

The possibilities for unearthing great characters are endless. I’m certain some of you are already thinking:  “Wait!  She didn’t mention my favorite method!”  Please, please, add your thoughts and ideas.  We are mining for treasure here, and we need your help.

“I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.”

Steve Martin


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