How to turn your commute into characters

Bored on your trip to work? Perfect! Why not use that time to fill your stories with fascinating, well-rounded characters?

Character creation is central to writing fiction – great characters can keep people reading long after their bedtime, and bad characters can have a reader dropping a story in mere pages. So how do writers create those elusive compelling characters?

Here are our favourite ways to spark, build and understand your characters.

Step 1: Inspiration – creating the spark

Every person you ever saw, spoke to or sneezed on
Remember how we mentioned your trip to work? Well, this is where it comes into play. Your commute (or your lunch break, or your shopping trip, or anywhere you’re around a reasonable number of strangers) is filled with character ideas.

People-watching certainly isn’t a new technique, but with so many apps and devices to distract us, it’s becoming increasingly easy to neglect this simple source of inspiration.

That man reading the paper on an odd angle? Character. That teenager trying not to snort with laughter while she texts her friends? Character. And that woman whose bus-trip make-up attempt has left her with Vulcan-looking mascara-smeared eyebrows? Definitely a character.

Be a tool
Work from home? Or just not a fan of socialising or making eye contact unless it’s absolutely necessary? No worries. The internet has got you covered. There are plenty of apps, websites, programs and other gizmos to help. Here are just a few of our current favourites:

Characterize (iOS)
Random character generator (web)
Black Desert Character Creator (program)
Fantasy Name Generators (web)
The Character Name Generator (web)

Step 2: Make them care – building reality
You have a character idea, maybe your character even has a name, but he/she is still feeling a little… two dimensional. The more “real” your character feels, the more your reader will care about him/her. (And if you want a crash course on why your reader needs to care about your characters, have a look at this guest post from our fabulous presenter Claire Scobie.)

So, how do you build that reality? Layers, friend. Your character needs layers. (Yes, like onions.) And for that, we’re back to your commute.

Put some headphones on. Have a look at someone who’s talking. We know, we know – you’re wondering how you’re supposed to eavesdrop with headphones on, right? You’re not eavesdropping. What the people are saying isn’t so important – what you’re looking for is how they’re saying it.

Body language, gestures, expressions, even clothing, phone cases, hairstyles – all of these things say something about people. And your character needs all of them. (Okay maybe not all of them – if your story is set in medieval times, your character probably doesn’t need a phone case.)

Step 3: Understanding wants and needs
So you have your character’s appearance covered. You have his/her expressions down to a fine art. But do you know what he/she wants?

In great fiction, protagonists drive the action. In short, the character wants something and actively tries to get it throughout the story, driving (most of) the plot twists and turns. Understanding what your character wants and what skills they have to help them achieve it is key to writing a captivating story.

How do you find out what your character wants?

Write a series of questions and have your character answer them.
Where did the character grow up? What was his/her family life like? What did he/she love as a child (butterflies, skipping, fighting)? Does he/she drink coffee or tea? Why?

This is what we like to call the “when push comes to shove” approach. Put your character in a sticky situation. Give him/her limited tools. How does he/she react? How does he/she approach the problem? How do his/her skills help?

Regardless of whether you are a planner or a pantser, knowing your characters inside and out helps you understand exactly how they will react when they are forced to make those split-second, story-changing decisions – and it’s those decisions that make great stories.

For more character creation and character building tools, have a look at our Fiction Essentials: Characters online course.

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