characters,  writing a novel

Character Design Ideas

People ask me where I find the inspiration for my characters. Some ask if my characters are based on real people. Most of my characters are compilations of lots of people.

When I wrote a romance based on my courtship with my husband, I wrote the antagonist based on several of his old girlfriends (I probably had way too much fun designing that character, haha).

Inspiration for characters is everywhere if you look for it. I find character design ideas all around me. The more I observe the people I see in my everyday life, or even on vacation, the more ideas I have to create characters.

Find Ideas While on Vacation

While I was in Hawaii, my husband decided we should check out the north shore to see the big waves. The day before we got there, the waves were rumored to be about 30 feet–those are some big waves! When we arrived at Waimea (I think that’s how you spell it) Bay the waves were 12-15 feet high and my husband went body surfing. He got pounded. Really beat up by the waves. The beach was gorgeous and I was glad we went (not glad my husband got pounded, though).

Since we were staying on the other side of the island on Waikiki Beach we decided to take the city bus to the north shore (takes almost 2 hours, but only costs $2). On our ride back, I wished I’d had my notebook because I saw such interesting people.

I saw a skinny, middle-aged Hawaiian man. His black hair was matted, but stuck straight up on top of his head. His clothes were mismatched. His hands were black with dirt and his eyes were wild. He didn’t say much, but constantly stood while we were driving and acted as though he were fishing. He’d cast a line, wait for a moment, and then acted as if he were gathering up a net.

He stepped close to several of us riding in the bus and gathered up something behind our heads. Invading my personal space made me feel uncomfortable, but watching him made me so sad. I wondered what had brought him to where he was. Had he ever been married? Did he have kids? Were his parents still alive? Had he run away from a corporate job? Was he a missing person?

I also saw a lady in her seventies, I’d guess, that was wearing a white suit with a mini skirt. She carried a little dog in a fancy carrier, had long dyed red hair, wore a lot of jewelry and makeup, and carried a cell phone. A woman who refused to acknowledge her age, perhaps? A woman who was searching for love? I let my imagination wander as I observed her and tried to make some mental notes.

We also made some local friends along the way and I noticed a speech pattern. Locals add “yeah” to the ends of their sentences. “You like it here, yeah?” “You saw the Dole pineapple plantation, yeah?” “Going to see the big waves, yeah?” “I’ve lived here for a year, yeah.” It was interesting, once I noticed it, to hear the locals use it.

“Characters” are all around us. Maybe none of these people will ever be a character in one of my books, but the experience made me more observant.

I never ride public transportation at home, but what a goldmine if you need to pan for character traits.

Based on People From Our Own Lives

Most of my kids have been in theater over the years, but some have played soccer. It was interesting to watch the parents at soccer games.

Some parents were really into the game and coached their kids from the sidelines. Other parents talked to each other through the whole game. And then there were the parents who scrolled on their phones.

One particular parent at a game hung back from the rest and observed. She didn’t interact with anyone. I had to wonder if maybe she was watching an estranged child and this was her only chance to see her son or daughter. Maybe she was embroiled in a nasty divorce. Or maybe she’d given that child up for adoption and was trying to get a glimpse. Or maybe she was an undercover FBI agent who suspected that one of the kids had been kidnapped years before.

Whatever the case, it allowed me to not only create all sorts of backstories but to also add more traits to my character arsenal.

I’ve also combined traits from family members and friends. When I wrote one of my books, I based a character on my husband. I received some criticism because the character seemed too nice and unrealistic. I wanted to say, “This is actually my husband. He’s a really nice man.” I learned, though, that I failed to give that character enough flaws to make him believable. So beware when you base characters on real people because they may not seem realistic to readers (that seems ironic, doesn’t it?)

Inspiration from Reality TV

Watching reality TV can inspire unique ideas for characters.

I watched a show about men who dress up as dolls. They wear latex masks, wigs, and body suits. I watched another one about a woman who eats bricks and one who eats sheet rock. I saw a guy who eats glass and another one who was in love with a carnival ride.

These are some pretty wild examples, but it made me think about creating characters who might have embarrassing problems or strange things they hide from others. Don’t we all hide our “undesirable” habits or traits?

Watching shows like “The Bachelor/Bachelorette” is another goldmine for finding character traits. You can see how people use words as well as body language. You can also see how people react to each other and how they express themselves with their mannerisms. You can find all sorts of different kinds of people on shows like this that can help you to design a well-rounded and complicated character.

It’s important to design characters who have some depth and giving them unique characteristics will make them even more interesting.

people-at-the-mall

People Watch

One of my favorite ways to get inspiration for characters is to go to the mall and just sit and people watch. You can take a notebook and make notes about the people you see. Don’t be creepy, of course, but write down physical characteristics as well as mannerisms.

Watch how the people interact with each other. How does a woman walk? How does that man stand? Are those two people best friends or are they in love? How can you tell?

Make note of your reactions to the people you see. How do you react to someone wearing a business suit? A mini skirt? Lots of make-up? A bathing suit? Someone walking down the mall in a bathing suit would be out of the ordinary, so how would someone react to that? Using your own reactions can help you to design a more realistic character.

Watching people always gives me lots of ideas for my characters.

Characters Are Eveywhere

You can find inspiration for your characters everywhere. I’ve noticed traits at church, the grocery store, the movies, and the hair salon. Have you ever been getting your hair cut and another person just talks and talks and talks? Does that annoy you? Maybe you could include that in your story for a character you want readers to think is annoying.

Or what about a pushy salesperson at the mall kiosk? Or the timid cashier at the grocery store? Or the rude waiter at a restaurant? Or a customer service phone rep that goes out of her way to help you?

Look around and you will find so much material for creating your characters. The only limitation will be your own imagination.

If you’re stuck on creating a character try finding ideas while on vacation, using traits from people you know, watching some episodes of a reality TV show, or taking a trip to the mall to sit and people watch.

You could even try public transportation. The next time I’m stuck on a character, I think I’ll drive to the city and hop on a bus for an hour or two. Or, better yet, I’ll fly over to Hawaii and ride that city bus again–sounds like a great idea to me :).

woman-by-bus

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