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It Takes a Village (or, Characters Made Easy-er)

This is part of a series of articles on how to use free-writing to find your characters.  I hope you have fun with it, but more importantly, I hope you find that you do have a creative side.  The side that loves to write in a unique voice.


A lot has been written in amateur writing groups about profiling characters to get to know them, but  most of it simply suggests listing a few facts such as their physical appearance, their place in the  family, and where they went to school.   

To know someone, you need to talk to them to know their likes and dislikes, their goals, whether they  have a pet and what that pet means to them.   Get to know them inside and out.  Lists and  interviews may be enough for experienced writers who know how to fill in character details as they  go, but beginners need more direction.  in my opinion, more direction just makes it easier to  understand the concept of profiling.   

It isn't easy to create perfect characters that live and breathe on the page, and even few published  writers manage it with ease, but, my goodness, when you do come across one, the story is absolutely  memorial. Characters are the heart of most stories and if you don't know and understand yours as well as you know yourself, the story will suffer.  Time must be spent on building characters, and yes, I understand we want to get on with the story, but I believe taking the time to do this extensive, but  fun exercise will help develop realistic characters for more than one story.  

Build yourself a community of unique characters. 

Think about the variety of people in a real neighborhood, and put them in their own homes.  Or use an apartment house and populate it with  a good mix of characters.  Have them interact with each other.  Gossiping neighbors is always a good way to find out about people.  There will be a curious postman that could become a minor character in one of the stories, perhaps a spy.  Reading the postmarks and wondering about the  recipients can help develop backgrounds.  There might be a trash collector, you know, the kind that drives the trucks.  To get the best use of him, he will know the people he serves.  Much can be learned about a person through his trash.  

Take the people through their days by giving them jobs, modes of transport, families.  Look into their thoughts as they sit quietly to learn their goals and fears.   What do they hope for?  Have them visit  each other--argue, party.  Put a few homeless people on the sidewalk and let them interact.  Find out their circumstances and how they ended up there.  Develop them well and use them.  Cops that still walk a beat can be useful.

You're not trying to write a story here, you're building a batch of good characters that can be used in various works.   Give them the opportunity to talk and they will tell you about themselves in their own  voices.  Let each of them have the floor.  Two people can begin to discuss a simple topic and if you get out of their way, you will learn what their passions are--what they want most in the world.   

If you can do this with the whole neighborhood, you'll have good guys and bad guys, grocers, kids and streetwalkers.  Minor and major actors.  Add new characters by simply moving them into a vacant apartment.  As the neighbors get to know them, so will you.  Each will eventually let you know who they are and they will lead you into their own story.  

This works for every genre.  Sci fi and fantasy neighborhoods probably won't have an apartment house as the setting, but there could be a house down the street with mysterious occupants for that vampire or horror story.   Or place a surprised time traveler on the corner of Fifth  and Vine.  You're writers, use your imagination.

This idea is similar to the 'Elevator Concept', where you put a bunch of people in a closed area they can't escape from and let them deal with the problem in their own way.  But it goes further than that  by getting into their backgrounds and heads and bringing them to life.