Where Do They Come From?

People ask me where I get my characters. I think they’re either worried that they’ll show up in a book – or maybe hoping for that to occur.

Writing (12 of 30)

The truth is, I rarely base my characters on real people. Occasionally, I’ll have a contest or oblige a friend and have a “cameo,” but usually, the characters come straight out of my imagination. If you see yourself in any of my characters, that’s great, but it’s not because I know you and decided to toss you in there!

I do use traits from people I know, however. I’ve used a friend’s nervous fidgeting habit, pet phrases, a way of wearing their hair, and other snippets that, divorced from the entire personality, can’t really be traced back to any one person. I don’t like having recognizable people in my stories for several reasons.

First, you’re either going to love it or hate it, and I can’t really predict which most of the time, so why open up that can of worms? Second, this is going to be forever, so whatever I write about you, whether flattering or not, will stick around a lot longer than you want it to. And finally, if I include one real person, everybody’s going to want one – and I just don’t have that many background characters to pass around.

What about you? Where do your characters come from?

Creating Characters

I’ve been invited to create a new character for the Western Fictioneers – something for the shared world of Wolf Creek. This is an 1872 town on the Kansas prairie, with characters created by a variety of authors. We’ve just published Book 16 and my new character will make his appearance in the next anthology.


I thought I’d share a few tips on creating a new character, as I go through the process:

  • Start with the basics – first, you need to decide what gender, race and age your character is going to be. This may change later, but start with the basic information in mind so you have that general image.
  • Add details – decide how your character looks (at least the bare minimum of hair & eye color, approximate size, and anything unusual) and how they dress. Imagine the outer package for your character.
  • Pick a setting – where does your character come from? Where do they live and work? What do they do and how well do they do it? See your character in their natural habitat before you begin your story.
  • Fill out a chart (or two) – find one (or more) of those character charts … and you can’t go wrong with mine – just use the drop-down menu above, under Writer’s Toolkit! Fill out the chart(s) to learn about your character’s personality so you’ll know how they will act in your story.
  • Christen your child – once you can see the character clearly in your mind, it’s time to pick a name. By this time, you’ll know the sort of name that fits the character best, whether it’s a traditional name to match their ethnicity, a nickname, or something that describes their personality. My character chart also has a few links at the bottom to help you name characters.

And that’s how I came up with my new character, who’s going to be a sort of Junior Chance – young teens, mixed race, very intelligent, and a budding criminal mastermind. He’s going to serve as a connection between the different parts of Wolf Creek, running messages and selling information, performing tasks that may not be quite legal, and generally being a go-between when a citizen doesn’t want to (or can’t afford to) be seen in a certain part of town.

Characters: Public vs. Private

Everyone has a public side that they show to everyone, and a private side that is only shown to their most intimate friends (and sometimes, not even to them!). So what about your characters?

Writing (3 of 29)

There is a difference between a character trait and a character persona. Your characters, just like real people, will have certain traits that they wish to keep hidden. They have certain facets of their personality that they will strive to disguise. And that can give you a great source of conflict and tension.

Think about people you know: the beefy muscle-man who’s petrified of needles, the soccer mom who runs marathons, and the bespectacled professor-type who’s a secret underwear model. Don’t we all have our hidden sides? Shouldn’t your characters have one as well?

Give your characters some secrets, preferably ones that they either don’t want known, or that aren’t immediately obvious. Perhaps they’re battling their own dislikes when they serve at that soup kitchen line, or perhaps that jock would really rather be reading a good book instead of making that basket.

The fun of a good story is finding characters who seem to leap off the page, and they can’t do that if they’re just cardboard cut-outs.

Hillerman Convention: Day 1

Thursday is the Pre-Converence Conference. Today we learned The Anatomy of Engaging Stories (Bill O’Hanlon)



Elements of an Engaging Story:

  • Characters – must engage the reader; the reader must identify with the character in some way. Create a mental image of the character with names, appearance, gestures, dialogue, and what other characters say or think.
  • Specific sensory details about people, places or actions – use the five senses!
  • Action (Plot: beginnings, middles and ends) – the character must be frustrated or threatened or face conflict somehow, must feel called to act or thwarted in his action.
  • Scene setting – props and sets; think more Little Theater than Hollywood – go for minimal props and setting (place/time/social)
  • Dialogue – bring the reader into the moment
  • Vague enough to allow for imagination (let the reader “hallucinate” much of the description)
  • Repetition of sounds/theme/elements
  • Revisiting the beginning at the end (story arc)

Elmore Leonard used the term “hoppetedoodle” (HOP-tee-doo-dle) to mean too much descriptive detail in a story.

We also had a great lecture about “The Language of Liars,” which is going to be quite useful to me with Chance! Then, it was Tony Hillerman’s 90th birthday party (with cake!), and a chance to see the new educational portal UNM is working on, to take Tony’s legacy to schools and educate young writers.

Photo Shoot: Stone

Here are some ideas for “Stone” Kirkham’s looks:


Stone’s proudest feature is his fine mustache…



Stone is a serious fellow … hard working and ambitious



He wears the latest fashion … only not perhaps as fine as Chance’s outfits




Stone is a bit proud of his achievements…





He’s a bit too straight-laced for the lads…


What’s in a Name?

Finding Names for Characters and Places

One of the questions I constantly hear from new writers is “Where do you get all those names?”



Here are some of the resources I use.

For Characters:

  • Telephone Books – especially if you can find one from the town where your story is set
  • Credits – check out the end of a movie or TV show for tons of names to mix and match
  • Online Generators – there are a variety of these to choose from
    • Online Name Generator – a database of different generators, from character names to businesses and band names
    • Behind the Name – you can choose from different countries, or even fantasy and mythologic names
    • Seventh Sanctum -not only does this site have several name generators, it also has story ideas, prompts, and a “what-if-inator”
    • The Character Name Generator – designed more for writers, with ethnic choices
    • Rinkworks – a fantasy name generator with some fun choices like very long names, mushy insults, and bad names

For Places:

Are there any other resources you like to use that I haven’t mentioned? Comment below!

What’s Your Sign?

(Astrology as a method of character development)

Thanks to Ken Farmer for reminding me of this trick.

WP_Astrology_SunMoon One of the things you need to know in order to develop your characters is their personality. One “quick and dirty” trick to getting a start on this is to use astrology.

I’m not necessarily advocating astrology – or even stating whether or not I believe in it – but any good astrology website will give you a great little personality profile. That will give you a starting place for your character’s development.

You can go about this in two basic ways:

  • Pick a random birthdate for your character and investigate the sign associated with that birthdate.
  • Read through an astrology site and see if any of the personality charts sound like your character.


Let’s look at how this works.

Here’s what the website has to say about Gemini (Chance’s sign):

A Gemini can change his clothes, his job, his love life or his residence as fast as he changes his mind, and that’s pretty fast. Find­ing a good example to study may keep you hopping. You could try a bookstore. He’s a browser, because he can get the gist of the contents in a brief scanning of the pages. (It’s no accident that John F. Kennedy was a speed reader.) Mercury people also have that nasty habit of reading the last page first.

When you’ve found this quicksilver person, study him care­fully, even if you do get exhausted following him around. The first thing you’ll notice is a nervous energy that fairly snaps, crackles and pops in the air around him. An occasional Gemini will speak slowly, but most of them talk fast. All of them listen fast.

Man or woman, Gemini is impatient with conservative stick-in-the-muds, or with people who can’t make up their minds where they stand on particular issues. Gemini knows where he stands, at least for the moment.

Unless there’s a conflicting ascendant, the Gemini build is generally slender, agile and taller than average. Many of them have small, sharp features, as if they were cut in a cameo. You’ll find some with brown eyes, of course, but the majority of those ruled by Mercury will have beautiful, crystal-clear hazel, blue, green or gray eyes that twinkle and dart here and there. Geminis never rest their eyes on one object for more than a few seconds. In fact, their alert, quick-moving eyes are often the easiest way to recognize them. The complexion tends to be rather pale, yet they usually tan easily, and that’s the way to spot them in the summer. (In the winter, they often have wind bums from swooping down a ski slope.)

There’s an eagerness about Geminis, an immediate, sym­pathetic friendliness, and unusually quick, but graceful movements. The hair can be light or dark or both-like, streaked. Twins, remember? The nose is likely to be long and straight or dainty-in either case, probably well formed. There’s frequently a receding hairline in the men (from all that activity in the brain, perhaps), and both sexes normally have rather high foreheads.



You can see that not only does a good chart give personality traits, but also some physical features. This can be quite useful for fleshing out that secondary character – or even figuring out what your main characters look like.

Try this technique the next time you’re wondering about one of your characters. I think you’ll be pleased with how much information you can get from an astrology chart.

Photo Shoot: Chance

Here are some of the character ideas I’ve checked out for Chance:

Chance_Idea1His hair is this curly but the bangs hang down into his eyes most of the time

Chance_Idea2More curly hair

ChanceIdea6This is his baseline expression … might even be Chance with his hair slicked down under control…

Chance_Idea6He’s kinda cute…

Chance_Idea5 Messy but cute…Chance_Idea4Love the curls, David!