Saturday, June 24, 2017

Developing Characters for Your Fiction: Always a challenge

Thinking about my characters with co-thinker!
How Do I Develop Characters? 

A great question. A tricky question.

How I develop a character is to steal what I know, research what I don’t, and if anything is left (and there’s always something crucial one can’t find out), make it up. 

Sometimes characters arrive in my imagination well developed.  Other times, if I am riffing off a “real” character, like my mother, I struggle to differentiate the character from the person, to create a true character and not a clone.  A character can arrive with a few characteristics: for example I know that she is a forty-year-old Mennonite widow living in a tiny town in south central Kansas in 1953.  And that’s all I know about her. I give her a name.  Lizzie Ledoux.  Lizzie is my current WIP.

 As a young girl, I spent a summer in this town in the fifties living with my grandmother and working in my uncle’s café.  The July heat, the café patrons, small town life, trips to the city of Newton, trips to the big city of Wichita, even the denim swimsuit I bought came streaming back into memory.  But my character would never wear a swimsuit, would she?  She wouldn’t hang out at the café, either.  She would go to church, dress modestly, tend a garden, and visit family.  But who was she? 

I remembered a statement my grandmother once made.  “Doc Brenneman and his family are back from Africa.”  Africa?  What were they doing there?  Ah, missionaries.  Mennonite missionaries.  Interesting.  With that in my head, I was off to research Mennonite missionaries in Africa.  I found out where the missions were, and that they ran clinics and schools.  In this part of Africa, the official language was French.  So my character spoke French.  I concocted her education, and part of her time in Africa, her backstory as we say in fiction.  She learned to like spicy food and brought home hot pepper seeds.  The children taught her to run distances, because transportation was rare.  She is still a runner.  She learned self-sufficiency and leadership.  Female missionaries who went to Africa were (or became) strong women.  My character liked art, and she brought back a few African masks.  Slowly, in increments, I began to know Lizzie, how she was widowed, how she coped, and her actions when she discovered a dead body in her little town, right in the restaurant parking lot. 

In one book, Chased By Death (now with my agent), a character, Maxine, arrived with a full-blown story.  It was like she was at my shoulder talking to me, as I transcribed her tale. And then?  She said, “well, you can take it from here,” and left my shoulder, with me shouting, “Hey, wait, you can’t just leave! I don’t know what happens to you.”  She told me I would figure it out, and of course with much gnashing of teeth and hard work, I did. Maxine was tough because she had to be.

 We have to put our characters through the wringer.  Because they aren’t real, are they? Listen: after you have written a book and lived with your characters day by day, I guarantee they are real to you.

 Life is strange.  Writing is even stranger.   

Here are other bloggers who are tackling the subject.  Take a gander at what they have to say. 


  1. We all work in such different ways but with so many similarities! And yes, I agree characters can have a strange balance in the mind of unreal but real.

  2. My characters frequently present themselves then leave me to figure it out. It's all very frustrating. That's where I'm currently at with a few WIPs.

  3. Judith, I find it interesting that you get some of your characters from real people in your past (or present!). I am not aware of ever having done that, except when writing explicit or disguised autobiography.

    Your post does make your writing interesting.

  4. Interesting subject and blog post. "Back from Africa," does give the reader an instant mental picture and a million unanswered questions.

  5. Hi Judith, Yes, I agree, living with these people day in and through many a long night - they're more real than some of the neighbours to me. Anne

  6. Many of my characters kind of show up in my brain very clearly. Trenna, for example, is the star of the Sedition series and she smacked me upside the head one day when I picked up an old Templar sword. Her counterpart, Nelek, on the other hand ... He took some serious digging before I finally understood him.

  7. Judith, wow! That sounds like a really interesting story! It's amazing that you have those memories to draw from.

  8. What a fascinating character. I loved Lizzie. Please be sure to let us know when this book becomes available. I'd love tor read her story.


Your comments are always welcome!