Found Characters: How I Came Up With the Characters for My Book

People fascinate me.  What is it that motivates them to act in a certain way?  What pain have they suffered in their life?  Why are they so cruel?  So when I’m looking for ideas for a new novel or story, more often than not, I start with a character.  Out of the characters life, the story flows.  But how do I find the character?

I can only speak from my own experience, but I have found the most fascinating people in the obituary section of the Globe and Mail.  In particular, the novel I am currently editing is based on the life of a woman who in her eighties, travels alone in a motor boat to spend time on an island.  I automatically thought, “Who is this woman, and what’s her story?”  The image of her in motor boat, on the water, alone, traveling to an island, stayed with me.  It was as if she wanted me to tell her story.  From there my novel was born.

Of course I needed an island to write about.  Luckily for me, a friend of mine has a cottage at the French River so I had a “go-to” person for information and a guide when I was ready to visit the location.  The French River lends itself to so many possibilities for story ideas.  It has a history of being the gateway to the west for fur trading during the time of Champlain, it has a native population, a trading post, as well as a local myth, all of which I included in my novel.

When I needed my character to learn about the history of the area, I invented a librarian/historian based on another life lived in a Globe and Mail obituary.  I wanted my protagonist to learn about the native community, hence a friendship with a native woman and her family was included in the story.

I also have an antagonist who makes life difficult for my main character.  He came to me fully formed, his life intertwined with the history of the place.  My protagonist’s mother was easy to write as well, and helps to examine the protagonist past life.

With all of my characters I had to invent a back story.  Some in more detail than others.  As with any character development, they don’t always perform the way you want them to.  They may be your creations, but they most definitely have a mind of their own. Don’t fight it.  You will only lose.  Trust your character to lead the way.

In an interview with Garth Stein in the February /2015 edition of Writer’s Digest (p.42) he talks about telling a story from “found objects”.  I think this is what I have done with River of the Stick Wavers.  My character came first with a background already in place and a story that begged to be told, the rest followed with “found objects.”

Of course there are many ways to come up with characters for your story.  This is just what worked for me.  The main character for my next novel will be based on one of the characters in my current novel.  My son showed me a picture of a woman he found on line that reminded him of what she might have looked like in her younger days.  I plan to take her back in time and write her story next.  I can hardly wait to get started.

Categories: Writer's Notes

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