9 More Sources for Character Ideas

Photo © 2009 姒儿喵喵 (crystaljingsr) CC 2.0 BY NC

Ideas are a dime a dozen, which is no consolation when you just can’t seem to come up with that perfect idea that will pull you past your writer’s block and bring the story you’re trying to write into focus. And the more you wrack your brain, the harder it is to come up with ideas.

Instead of giving up, sometimes it helps if you take a step back and look at the problem from a different angle. Here are 9 creativity exercises that may help generate ideas for fictional characters.

  1. Mind-map a feeling. Or an object or another character in the story. For example, write down “confident” in the center of a piece of paper. As you connect it to related concepts, on one side of the graph you may come up with “headstrong” and “CEO” and “domineering” and “pushy” and “conceited” and “get others to run with his ideas” and “takes credit for their work” and… Now you’re starting to describe a character. And on the other side, maybe you have “stable” and “unshakeable” and “sense of identity” and “strong community” and “family values” and so forth. Could these even be describing the same character? Or start with an object or setting in the story, or another character, and explore how your character might respond to that object, setting, or other character.

  2. Observe the people around you. Sometimes cool character ideas come to me as I’m standing in line at the grocery store, or sipping at corner coffee shop, or wherever. The character ideas are all in the “Why?” A mother and small child; she looks sad, but he’s all smiles and energy. Did some tragedy occur in their life that the little one is oblivious to? Or is she just tired, because she got no sleep last night, because she’s worried about something? Why would she respond the way she does?

    This is how I created the girl in “An Indelible Design”, inspired by one of the employees at my favorite Starbucks, who appeared to be having a bad day. On her break, she curled up in one of the comfy chairs in the corner and just stared out the window, while I worked nearby. I couldn’t help but notice her. I have no idea what she was thinking about. The next week, she seemed in a much better mood, smiling and friendly, though still quiet, reserved.

  3. Watch a television documentary or news program. I prefer the former, because the stars of news reports are usually just terrorists and politicians, and sometimes you can’t even tell the difference. In any case, this is similar to #2 above, except that instead of sitting at the coffee shop, you’re observing people through the eyes of the reporter.

  4. Watch a sit-com. This is the flip-side to watching real people. Sit-coms have some of the craziest, quirkiest, and most senseless characters around. You’re looking for inspiration in the fictional characters of other writers. Don’t rip off whole characters, because that’s not cool. Rather, look at individual quirks, and theorize as to why someone might react that way in real life.

  5. Throw a dart at the human-needs chart. Everyone acts to fulfill their perceived needs. That’s the fundamental law of character action. So start with one of the 10 basic human needs, and ask about your character, “How does she perceive that need? How does she seek to fulfill it?”

  6. Think about the most traumatic experience you’ve ever had. Or the most exciting, or romantic, or whatever. Create a character that is similar to you, or different from you, or has an analogous experience. Include elements from multiple experiences, and mix with a healthy dose of the benefit of hindsight. You can do this even if you’re only beginning to write fiction, because you’re writing what you know personally.

    I used this method in an early story I wrote, “Pine”, which I still like. I talk about some of the real-life experiences upon which this story was based in Love through the Eyes of an Idiot, especially chapter 2.

  7. Play “What If?” In other words, ask questions to stimulate ideas. This is a way to challenge limiting assumptions, which you may not even consciously be aware that you’re making. We naturally assume that others are like ourselves, even though we realize that this is not necessarily so. As authors, we sometimes unintentionally give our characters the same personalities as we have. So what if Suzie had challenged her boss’s orders? What would that indicate about her personality? And what would be the implications for the rest of the story? Or what if Harriet has had traumatic experiences that she associates with snow? How might she feel about moving to Buffalo? You get the idea, right?

  8. Meditate. Or try taking a walk, which actually can stimulate creativity. If you’ve done all your research, and you know what you want your character to accomplish, but you just don’t know how to bring that together into a real person, maybe you just need to quiet your mind and listen to that still-small voice in the back of your mind. Frequently, it has the answers, the ideas you need, but if your mind is too noisy with other thoughts, you won’t be able to hear it.

  9. Tweak your character journal. You have been writing down cool character ideas as they occur to you, right? Go to that list of ideas and experiment. Like “What if?” above, tweak specific parts of a possible character trait, replacing it with something different or its opposite. Try combining multiple traits. Take a trait to the N’th degree, until it becomes unhealthy. I usually end up performing this step when I’m looking for random ideas, just to generate possibilities, and I usually come up with at least one good one.

Keep writing!


These are all great methods to help germinate ideas. However, a means rarely used, but tremendously effective, is collaborative writing. Writing with others is a great way to spur creativity in each other. And there is no greater place for this than the internet. You can write collaboratively with others on this Collaborative Writing Site

For me, number two is by far the most potent device for deriving a character. I find it helps to really try to consider how someone you know well would really react to a given event. Being able to draw on your wealth of knowledge about a specific person can help avoid contrived responses to events by characters.


Leave a comment