Sometimes characters come to us fully formed, complete with desires, flaws and quirks,.
Other times, they may come to us as rough sketches, with a beating heart, but needing fleshing out.
And sometimes the characters don’t want to come at all. They hide in the shadows, refusing to show themselves.
In this article, we’re going to explore methods of coming up with ideas for characters, and developing sparks of ideas into something more three dimensional.
We’ll look at ways to inspire charismatic personalities, how to inform fictional characters from real life, and explore practical methods for consistently coming up with solid character ideas.
Where to find character ideas for your story
Finding Character Ideas in Real Life
Real life is the richest source of inspiration for characters – because we are surrounded by real people at all times, and every one of them is unique, with their own passions, contradictions, humour and traumas.
Close friends and family
The people closest to us are likely to give us some of the deepest and most nuanced character ideas, as we know these people the best. We see their different layers and perspectives, and how they can behave in different ways depending on the situation and their mood.
Observing our loved ones and analysing their behaviour can help us understand the human condition, and see ways in which people act that might surprise us.
But do take care when transposing people from your real life into your stories. Someone might not appreciate having their trusted secrets laid out on the page for strangers to read, even if you have changed their name. If they recognise themselves and feel the portrayal is unfair or too personal, then they could be rightfully upset.
So, when using your close friends and family as inspiration for your characters, be kind and tread lightly.
Public Figures and Fictional Characters
At lower risk of causing friction in your day to day life, is using public figures or established fictional characters as your inspiration.
With even the most public of public figures, we are still only getting a very two-dimensional view of their personality, no matter how well we may feel we know them. But this can be an advantage rather than a weakness, because lifting them into relief can help create memorable characters with strong leading qualities. Once you’ve got the spark of the character idea, you can flesh it out using other techniques such as character interviews, exploring backstory or character questionnaires in order to fill in the details. Public figures could be politicians, actors or even reality TV show contestants.
Watching real strangers can be a particularly effective way to get ideas for quirks and mannerisms. Watch an interview with a politician and carefully observe what they do with their hands, their body and their facial expressions.
Fictional characters can work in the same way. We can find inspiration from a well-built character, then make them our own, by changing certain aspects of them, or exploring new paths their original story never ventured down.
Historical figures are another way to use real life to get ideas for characters, but the aspects that they are good for are slightly different, so you might want to use this tool in a different way.
With current public figures, you can see all sorts of lovely nuances in how they speak, act, and even walk. But you often don’t have access to information about the life experiences which made them who they are.
With historical figures, you’re unlikely to get a lot of direct detail about how they present themselves, but you can get a much better view of the broad arc of their life, and this can be fascinating and inspiring.
Historical figures often make for great character ideas, because they have become historical figures exactly because they have had interesting lives. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and reading about their family background, the challenges they faced and how that shaped them, can often bring a real person from the past back to life in your imagination, allowing you to give them new life on the page.
A huge part of our brains is dedicated to facial recognition and reading micro-expressions and the little details of someone’s appearance that tell us their age, personality and mood.. Searching for ‘portraits’ on Pinterest can provide a vast array of interesting faces which make feelings and reactions and judgements spark in our heads. By leaning into those reactions and letting them run away with themselves, an image of an old lady in a straw hat could turn into a full character complete with cottage, grandchildren, a pipe smoking habit and a cutting wit.
On social media, people tend to give away more of themselves than they intend, and you can learn a lot about a wide range of people by browsing twitter. You can start with their profile, seeing how they wish to present themselves to the world. Then browsing someone’s tweet history can give you all sorts of fascinating insights into what they find important and interesting, as well as their speech patterns and mannerisms.
Extreme versions of yourself
It’s almost inevitable that your own personality will leak into your characters. To a certain degree, as an author it’s a good idea to try to stop this getting out of hand – otherwise all your characters will just be slightly varied incarnations of yourself.
However, there’s no need to try to eliminate yourself entirely from your characters – especially when you could harness the valuable asset you have in knowing your own darkest secrets and strongest desires.
If you know that sometimes you have cruel and depressive thoughts, then exploring this and using it to create the basis of a character that reflects your worst self could be a very powerful character spark.
Likewise, you could recognise the best parts of yourself, either because you know about them, or by taking some compliments people have given you. Have people commented that you are a really good listener, or that after they see you they feel energised and ready to face their difficulties? Have they commented that you are thoughtful, or generous, or funny? Could you use that as the basis for a positive character, exaggerating and expanding on those qualities?
Or you could use fiction to be everything you are in your dreams. Most of us sometimes wish we were more brave, spontaneous or adventurous. You could be that person by living it through your stories. Have the witty remark ready, or the cut down for the bully. Take the risk. Live your fictional life to the fullest.
Born from the Themes
Some of the best characters are created directly from the themes of the story and the ideas the author is exploring.
For example, if an author wants to explore human connections, they may try to come up with a character who has been denied human connections throughout their life, and who is completely disconnected from the world now.
So they may be a computer programmer, who works in a tiny cubicle, eats lunch alone. Their mother was distant and their father left when they were little. They have never been on a date and find it hard to make eye contact.
Once you have these building blocks, inspired by the themes of the novel, you can add more layers through the other methods mentioned above.
Start with a Name
Baby name generators offer endless lists of names from different nationalities from all over the world, more often than not, with meanings. Some websites also give extra background and examples of the names in mythology or popular culture.
By browsing the names and meanings and lingering on ones that catch your attention, you could discover the spark of an idea which could blossom into a fully fledged character.
For example, when you hear the following names and their meanings, do the people start to form in your mind? What they might look and behave like? Looking at the name and assuming the meaning really does reflect their personality, what might their deepest desire be? What might be their greatest flaw?
The name Luna is primarily a female name of Italian origin that means The Moon. Luna is an Italian given name. It is also a Spanish surname for families from Luna in Spain. Luna is the name of the Roman moon goddess.
The name Silas is primarily a male name of Latin origin that means Man Of The Forest. Silas is possibly a short form of the name Silvanus, who was the Roman god of forests. Silva is a Latin word for woods or forest.
A good character generator can instantly create the core of a character for you to work from. Our character generator brings together many of the ideas we have for aspects of people it is interesting to be inspired by, including a portrait, personality type, good and bad traits and even what their house, pet and most treasured possession might look like.
Merge several ideas
Rather than using one of these techniques for each of the character’s you’re creating, why not consider using multiple of them?
You may start with a historical figure, whose achievements you find inspiring, then give them the quirks and mannerisms of a politician who is often in the news. By applying the themes of the novel, you can build up a picture of their day to day life, and perhaps a portrait from Pinterest will give them that final spark of real life.
Using Character Archetypes for inspiration
While there are an infinite number of characters that could exist, just as every single individual person is unique, there are some types of characters that tend to recur in fiction – because they resonate with certain aspects of the human condition.
So if you’re stuck for ideas, or you feel like your cast of characters are too similar, throwing one of these into the mix might help.
Bear in mind, that as these are archetypes, it will help if you can find some way to make them unique. You don’t need to completely subvert them, necessarily, but give them some quirk mannerism, or unexpected trait, to lift them from being purely cliche.
There are many different sets of archetypes you could draw from.
One of the most common is the eight hero’s journey archetypes:
You can read more about these hero’s journey archetypes here.
Psychology based Jungian archetypes are also very insightful:
You can read about these in more detail here.
Or you might go for the simple four archeypes of primary character, as laid out by Michael Hauge:
Read more about these here.
Unique Character Ideas for Your Inspiration and Delectation
And for a bit of fun, we’ve come up with our own list of character ideas, that you are welcome to take, twist, subvert, enhance and expand on
These have all been created by following one or other of the techniques listed above:
The Idiot Leader
This person has risen to the very top of the pile, and makes important decisions affecting millions of lives and the future of humanity itself. There’s only one problem, they are dumber than a fridge tart / self -serving and greedy / arrogant beyond all measure – or all of the above.
The Abusive Heart Throb
This quirky actor has topped every ‘sexiest man’ list since he was 17. He’s charismatic, funny and rock bands are named after him. But behind closed doors, he’s imaginatively cruel.
The Elderly Action Hero
60 isn’t what it used to be! Forget blue rinses and zimmerframes, today’s OAPs are climbing trees and chasing down bad guys.
The Gentle Naturalist
Ever since they found a fossil as a child, this person has been obsessed with the natural world, travelling across continents and delighting in the tiniest creature to the largest beast.
The Medieval Feminist
She has no rights, no powers and no voice. But this medieval woman can see the unfairness of being limited simply because of her gender, and she’s going to fight for change.
The Badass Glitter Girl
This girl is a trained assassin and could survive alone in a forest full of wild beasts. But that doesn’t mean she can’t have perfect nails and a new hair colour for every day of the week.
The Doe-Eyed Prince
His father wants him to be a manly warrior, but he just wants to be pretty. And by golly is he pretty.
Hopefully you’ll find some of the techniques in this article useful for when you’re trying to come up with new character ideas.
And of course, coming up with ideas is just the beginning. Once you’ve got that spark of an idea, you can develop it to give that character depth and extra dimensions.
For more advice on how to create and develop characters, you might want to check out this article on character introductions and this one on character development.