How To Start Writing Good Characters

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Ballroom Blitz by The Sweet)

A short one, because it’s getting late.

I just want to put to rest two ideas I had when I was just starting out. Well, more like concerns over things I should avoid.

The first concern I had was writing characters from people in my life. Try as I did, many of my early characters nonetheless seemed to represent my dad, my brothers, my friends, myself. I tried to steer myself away, thinking, No respectable books do that. All my favorite characters aren’t based on real people.

First, that’s not true. Mark Twain is Tom Sawyer, and in his autobiography he reveals that most of his major characters were based on people in his own life.

Second, even if you want to write completely new characters, it’s still a good choice to start by drawing from people you know. Among the many roles of an author – historian, political scientist, environmentalist, anthropologist – you also need to be a psychologist. The best characters have layers of depth just like regular people. And unless you’re a prodigy, you won’t be able to write someone that deep when they aren’t based on a person you already know. So start with your friends and family. You already know them on an intimate enough level to be able to assess what makes them tick, what motivates their every activity. That’s a great place to start.

(Side note, is this making sense? I’m writing while my friends are talking around me, and I can’t really concentrate. Apologies for anything disjoint.)

The second misconception I wanted to put to rest was the idea that a new author shouldn’t use an archetypal character. The fallen hero-turned-jaded, the know-it-all Hermione, the sagely old man who appears just in the nick of time and leaves before actually explaining anything of import – these are also great places to start.

But I shouldn’t write a character everyone has seen before! That’s boring/not nuanced/unhelpful in developing my character-writing skills.

Wrong. It’s not boring – if people didn’t want to experience the same things over and over again, pop music wouldn’t exist. It may not be nuanced in the beginning, but as you learn more about your character they will depart from the archetype in subtle ways you may not even notice. And it is totally helpful in developing your character-writing skills, for the same reason as drawing from people you know – because you already know, on some level, the little intimate things that make an archetypal character so good.

If you’re starting out writing, I will say it time and time again – start from what you know, and emulate what you like. It will bring you miles instead of feet (or kilometers instead of meters, because screw imperial measurements).

What’s your favorite character you’ve ever written? I want to hear about it in the comments!

Tiredly yours,

-R.R. Buck

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2 thoughts on “How To Start Writing Good Characters

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