Liars Club

While Folding Towels: Creating Fictional Characters

by Marie Lamba on October 6, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life,The Writing Process

Burning Question: How do you create your characters?

It starts with the merest fragment of something imagined. A scrap of dialogue as a daughter argues with her father. A glimpse of someone turning away in shame. Then, hopefully, my character grows from there, shaped by questions. What was she arguing about? What was she ashamed of?

I let the snippets stew for a while, until bits of scene start to flash in my mind.  I’ll be buying milk at the Acme when I envision the argument scene more completely. I can hear their voices in my mind. They’ve both got Jersey accents, but the father’s has a bit of New York attitude thrown in too. He’s thin beneath his dress slacks and button down shirt. She’s got long frizzy hair and large eyes, and as soon as she realizes she’s winning the argument, she backs down.  Her dad is fragile for some reason, and she doesn’t want to upset him. I like her.

Then, more questions. Where did the argument spring from? Why is the dad so fragile? What is the big conflict they are both heading toward? The characters become more real as their back story and future dreams occur to me.

This is pretty much how my characters develop. They spring from wisps and questions, and those all-important revelations by the dairy counter. Never from lists that I create. Never from index cards and clever writer’s tricks, though I have tried all of these. Instead, they’re born when I’m doing other things. Stupid things. Like working out on the elliptical, going on a long silent walk, loading the dishwasher, or folding a stack of towels.

I have to let my mind wander. I need to daydream of people that don’t exist and feel that they are solid, real. And then write them just as I imagine them, and see what happens next.

Marie Lamba goes to the Acme frequently.  She’s author of the young adult novel WHAT I MEANT… (Random House), and her articles appear in numerous publications including Garden Design, Writer’s Digest, and RWR – the national publication of Romance Writers of America.


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