Where Do the Characters Come From?

My friend Willard Campbell asked, “Since I don’t often read children’s books I’m not familiar with your characters. Do you write other books? How do your characters find their way?”

Find their way? I don’t know – it’s my job to get them lost and make that a challenge for them. You’d have to ask my characters how they find their way.

My first year at The University of Tulsa, I majored in Theatre Arts. One of the things they teach in acting class is to be a keen observer of human nature – to study mannerisms, expressions, and speech patterns that you can later steal from like a thief. That works equally well for writers, of course. Would it be churlish of me to remind Willard that he provided the inspiration for one of the characters in a long-forgotten, long-lost (I hope!) tale I concocted of the “Lunch Bunch” for a Creative Writing class at the University of Tulsa back in the late 1970s? Willard, Val, Gus…who else? (I remember little of the tale, other than turning Gus’s amazingly long and scraggly beard into a home for wayward owls, or some such thing.) The advice to “write what you know” is sound, and yet there would be very little good fiction if we writers didn’t break all the rules like the mischievous little imps that we are – improvising and embellishing and making things up to fill in the gaps of what we actually know – a curious mix of amazing facts, trivia, and nothing at all.

Don't worry, I store them all in my imaginary frien–er, fiend–er, characters' characters! Bring on that black coffee… How many proud psych-er, writers–are with me on this? (h/t Michael Stackpole)

Posted by Holly Jahangiri on Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Of course I write books that are not children’s books – my favorite form is short stories, and my favorite genres are psychological or classic horror and fantasy – and my deepest apologies to very young readers’ parents for my lack of foresight in not using a pseudonym. (We won’t talk about the scary things over on http://jahangiri.us/books, so head on over there if you’re looking for the more fun, playful, childlike stories for young readers!)

The second part of my answer is that all the bits and pieces a writer gathers through observation give birth, in our imaginations, to full-fledged “imaginary friends.” We never really outgrow our imaginary friends – we writers are a loyal bunch, even when we appear to be gleefully killing them off in strange and horrible ways. We’ll bring them back to life, give them new names, and tell new stories with them. We hardly have to go to the cinema; we have movies playing in our heads all the time. The trick is to slow down the film reel, or hit rewind, long enough to tell the tale before we get to the end and are, ourselves, ready to see a new one.

I have often likened my stories to “taking dictation.” It’s true; if I am the dictator, my imaginary friends call me “bossy” and refuse to play. If I allow them to play – as we did when we were children and all had imaginary friends, and I sit in the darkened theater of the mind, taking notes, the stories come. It’s only when I forget this, and try to direct or rewrite my characters’ stories, that I experience something akin to “writers’ block.” I don’t believe in writers’ block, really. I believe in “I can’t think of a story that entertains sufficiently to apply butt to chair long enough to type it out,” or “I don’t feel like writing right now, I’d rather take a walk, photograph a rainbow, or fingerpaint.” Imagination longs for an outlet, but not always for the same outlet every time. Imaginative people can grow bored very quickly, sometimes. Even the imaginary friends aren’t always in the mood to play. Sometimes, they want to paint or run or read a book or flop down on the couch and watch “Scream Queens.” Don’t judge.


Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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2 thoughts on “Where Do the Characters Come From?”

  1. It’s an odd way to ask a question – find their way? I mean, a story is a story, and the point of a story is to see how the main character, fictional or not, gets through to the end of the story. I mean, it is what it is… isn’t it?

    1. I had to think about that for a while, too, but I think it’s the difference between “plotters” and “pantsers.” Obviously, I’m one of the latter – I write by the seat of my pants, “taking dictation” from the little people in my head, and am often as surprised as any reader at how it ends – or how characters find their way from start to finish. I think “plotters” plan everything from start to finish and KNOW – they tell their characters which way to go and how to get there. So I think it’s an odd question, but a good one, and shows differences in the process.

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