Creating Characters: No Right Way

Creating living, breathing characters that readers can love or hate and identify with is a huge part of every author’s mission. How they accomplish that, though, varies from author to author. Some develop detailed character sheets that describe parents, siblings, eye color, height, weight, favorite food and color, hobbies, most traumatic incident, relationships, and just about anything you can think of about a person. Others interview their characters or write journal entries for them. Those who are pantsers allow the character to emerge on the page as the story unfolds. 

What About Using Real People?

A recent article in The New York Times detailed the life and death of the son and stepson of three famous authors who all apparently used him as a character or based characters on him and his life. Whoa.

In the very first fiction I wrote, I filled in detailed character worksheets to describe the main characters but not for the several characters I based on real people. For those characters I consciously changed their looks, their backgrounds and any traits that could identify them and drew on my impression of who they were: how they saw themselves in the world, how they treated others, their attitudes, and so on. But, as much as I distanced the characters from the real people, in my mind, I saw them as that person, heard that person’s voice in my head when writing their dialogue. 

Lesson Learned

It turned out using real people made me uncomfortable and I never did it again. Nor did I ever create character worksheets again. Instead, the characters in my stories come from my unconscious. They often arrive with names and sometimes with a little backstory but not much else. When I’m writing I try to see through their eyes and allow them to become who they are as they lead me through the story. I know this sounds mystical. I can’t really explain it. 

This quote from Eudora Welty summarizes my ideal way of creating characters. 

“Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.” 

What about you authors? How do you create your characters?

Catherine Maiorisi

Catherine Maiorisi is the author of the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery series featuring Corelli and her partner Detective P.J. Parker–two tough women, fighting each other while solving high profile crimes. A Matter of BloodThe Blood Runs ColdA Message in Blood, and Legacy in the Blood are all available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks narrated by Abby Craden.  

In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.


  1. I start with a vague idea of how they look, perhaps add an eccentric detail, and then focus on developing a unique voice for them that features their character, opinions, and background.

  2. I spend a lot of time on Zillow trying to figure out where they live and how they decorate their house or apartment. I suspect there are a lot of Zillow brokers who are trying to figure out what I’m doing. Or perhaps they just assume I’m a writer.

    1. I have had emails from realtors in Chicago because I have accessed their site looking at houses and apartments. They seemed to understand when I told them I was a writer looking for a nice place to describe in my novel.

  3. I also have a vague idea of how they look but I’m more concerned on their internal life, how they interact with other characters, what their role is in the story.

  4. Hmn, never thought of Zillow. It would be useful when writing romances when where they live might signify something about them or the fledgling relationship. I depend on Google but depending on the underlying subject I turn to books and articles.

  5. I hear you, Michele. I’m currently writing a romance that takes place in Italy, a place I love. But the hotels my two MC are staying in are so spectacular that I’m ready to pack up and fly there. Except, of course, They’re on a super luxury tour. Not only do I not usually do tours but I could never afford this one if it existed.

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