Whether you’re religious or not, you can’t deny that humans delight in few things more than playing God. While usually an accusation imputed to politicians, executives, and scientists, there are none so guilty of divine imitation as writers. Cloistered in our messy rooms, our brains imbibe on the power of creating universes that feel real, if to no one else, at least ourselves. The most successful of us have the ability to make life out of thin air; but no matter how rich the worlds we build; they cannot truly animate until the audience has an entry point, a guide to orient them to the facts of life. This is the role of characters.
Successful characters are story universes unto themselves. They express the totality of a singular viewpoint of the world they inhabit, giving the reader, viewer, or listener a lens of understanding. Plenty of storytellers smarter than I who have defined the qualities of good character development; but no one can truly master the art of inspiration.
There is an endless panoply of potential geneses for a character, but a great many tend to find it in people that they’ve met. As the old bromide goes, “write what you know.” Well… I grew up in a small Indiana town, and while I certainly knew some colorful folk, I did not have the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) the of drama, travel, and high adventure that great character builders like Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. R. R. Tolkien had. On top of that, I am a textbook introvert who doesn’t possess the gift of gab to strike up rich conversation with strangers.
So, what’s an isolated, taciturn writer like myself to do? I have devised a few avenues of inspiration that I use when tasked to develop a new character. These methods help my imagination work intelligently when I’ve exhausted the database of my limited personal experience. So, I present to you an introvert’s guide to character inspiration.
Watch, Ruminate, Repeat
You don’t have to be a scholar of Joseph Campbell to recognize archetypes in human storytelling. Heroes, villains, comic relief, etc. are all pretty easy to identify, even in works that have great complexity in their characters. I am a shameless advocate of stealing as a starting point; but the difference between “ripping off” and “taking inspiration” comes with the help of our old friend Socrates.
The next time you watch a film or TV show, pick a character to track through the entirety of the work. While you might elect the lead or protagonist, I find this exercise works best with a secondary character. As you watch, question everything about them, from “why are they wearing their hair that way?” to “what kind of marks did they get in school?” If it helps, you can even write these questions down.
After you’ve finished watching, go back and answer your questions within the work’s diegesis. In other words, don’t say, “because that’s what the director wanted,” think in context of the story. The best part is, there are no wrong answers. Each answer you give will beget even more questions, creating a fascinating rabbit hole to explore. By successively reverse engineering the cause from the effect, you will develop a list of original character motivations and scenarios that are yours to mine without fear of copyright infringement.
For a bonus points, re-watch the same movie and show with your answers in mind to see how they track. If you still have time and brain cells left, try to imagine how the story would be different if other characters were aware of the backstory you developed. Would it change their behavior? Would it impact the course of events? Before you know it, you’ll have a whole new toybox of character inspiration to leverage.
If writing a story is a test of creativity, then history is the ultimate cheat sheet. Mark Twain summarized it best when he said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” After 30,000 years of recorded communication, there truly is no narrative scenario that does not have myriad parallels across time. The same holds true for any character you could conceptualize.
When you’re starting from scratch, history is an excellent place to find the basis for developing your character beyond an archetypal notion. For example, if you’re looking for an “adventuresome hero,” maybe you’ll start with Amelia Earhart or T. E. Lawrence. Do some research, but don’t treat it like a social studies assignment. Focus less on dates and names and more on that person’s accomplishments, how they rose or fell to conflict, and how did their achievements affect their personal lives (or vice versa). Take note of any interesting facts or stories that strike you.
Once you feel you’ve gotten a rough sense of who your historical model was, put them into the setting of the story you’re telling. If Amelia Earhart lived during a high-tech age of jetpacks and teleportation, the standard of achievement would be dramatically different than it was just two decades after the invention of the airplane. Imagine what she would have to accomplish to make the same mark on history in such a dramatically different reality. Once you start riffing on how to play her life out in your milieu, you have the foundation of a character arc. Then, maybe it’s time to explore another historical example to blend into your new character.
History can also be an invaluable fallback when experiencing creative block. If you’ve written your character into a corner or lose sense of their direction mid-way through, history is a great place to get back on track. For example, on a recent project with IDEAS, I was writing the backstory for a theme park that, narratively, exists in the “real world.” In this story, an ancient society of Caribbean explorers had created a trading empire that expanded through Central America, South America, and into Oceania, but had somehow collapsed and receded before the arrival of Europeans. For the answer, I turned to China’s Ming Dynasty, who decided to cease expansive nautical exploration at the height of their fleet’s power to focus on internal economic growth. Applying the same strategy to character development can help you bridge similar impasses.
We all do it… You’re sitting in a café, treating yourself to some coffee and alone time and they enter… A troupe of legging-clad soccer moms glistening with perspiration from their Spin class. They grab their iced macchiatos, invade the conversation set next to you, and IT begins: the gossip. Although you try to drown out their palaver with Tik Tok and Instagram, your ears can’t help but tune in to hear who’s gained weight, who’s getting divorced, and who’s going on a second honeymoon in Tahiti. You try not to listen, but you’ve become helplessly enthralled to the plight of the bourgeois.
Eavesdropping is sort of like the aural equivalent of people watching. For introverts, it’s all the fun and drama of social interaction without having skin in the game. It’s also a fantastic source for character inspiration. Now, I’m not suggesting you maliciously plagiarize a stranger’s life, but effective character development is all about encapsulating truths of human nature. There are few more raw expressions than the idle prattle of friends and acquaintances going about their daily lives.
Next time a nugget of passing conversation catches your ear, hold onto it. Forget you heard it in the self-checkout at Target and imagine who else might say something like it and to whom they might say it. Work backward from the small bit of content you have and invent a new context around it. For instance, two toddlers arguing over their favorite toy might provide the type of raw, primal thoughts apropos for two people lost in the desert arguing over the last canteen full of water. You never know what mundane interactions might provide the right voice for your character’s experiences.
The other approach to character-building via eavesdropping is to focus not on what is said, but how it is said. Pay attention to inflection, rhythms of speech, and changes in tone. From these nuances of speech, we can pretty easily construct an archetype of the person who is saying it. While our intellectual reduction is not necessarily true to life (although it can be), the schema it creates in our mind can provide the basis for entire new characters.
Be Social (Yes. It’s Hard.)
I what you’re thinking, “Confound you Wells! You tricked us!” Since I started this little precis by bemoaning my introversion, I will end it by qualifying its benefits and drawbacks. Introverts, in my experience, tend to be pretty good thinkers. Because they are most comfortable outside of social pressures, they are great observers who don’t take the world for granted as they pass through it.
Still, if you’ll indulge a cliché, life is not a spectator sport. The exercises I’ve outlined are great ways to inspire imagination when you’re beset by a lack of stimulation, but there remains no better source of character development than real-life, flesh and blood people. Like fictional characters, people are universes unto themselves, and provide us a unique lens through which to view our own reality. It is important to explore and get to know these points-of-view, especially those with which are foreign and antithetical to our own. All of that inspiration and learning starts by saying “hello.”
Going out on a limb to introduce myself to new people, outside of a professional context, is something I try and often fail to do. Nevertheless, I strive for that self-assurance not just to be a better storyteller, but a better human being. I’ve found there is no better inspiration for character development or any other creative endeavor than having people in your life with whom you’re excited to share your work.