How I Create Characters | Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

How I Create Characters

Many of you have been asking about my process for creating characters—how I came up with certain characters, and more generally, how I make my characters seem real.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may have read one of my earlier posts on organic writing. For those of you who are new to my process, being an organic writer (sometimes called a pantser, in the sense of ‘writing by the seat of your pants’) means I do minimal planning and mostly let the story go where it wills. That also applies to characters.

Contrary to a lot of advice out there, I don’t invent a character until the story calls for him or her. I liken this to the way that you don’t know who’s inside a tavern until you walk in. Suddenly, there I am, standing on the landing. A scene spreads before me, and I have to describe it. Who’s waiting there to receive my viewpoint character? It’s often as exciting a mystery to me as it is to you.

When I’m writing, I put myself in my character’s shoes, assume his or her eyes and set off on their journey. Sometimes I have a vague sense of where the character needs to go; for instance, in Paths of Alir, I knew Tanis needed to go to the Sormitáge, but that was about all I had figured out for him until after he arrived.

When I’m in a character’s viewpoint, I am being that character to the best of my ability. I’m thinking like him or her, feeling what I expect they feel, experiencing what they experience. A good writer is able to become their characters in the way a great actor becomes a role.

I maintain that anyone is capable of adopting another person’s viewpoint, of standing in their shoes and seeing what they’re seeing. It requires some practice, but in this world of bigotry and intolerance, it’s a valuable skill to master.

Many schools of fiction recommend coming up with long lists of questions to ask yourself so as to gain comprehensive knowledge of a character’s personality. For me, it’s all about the name.

There is a scene with Trell in Kingdom Blades where he meets some new people—a few are new to him, all of them are new to the reader. I rewrote this scene eleven times over the course of a month.

To save my life, I couldn’t get the scene to work. I kept struggling with the characters’ dialogue, their interaction, and in the case of one of them—a pivotal one, as it turns out—his name. His name kept cycling through a series of similar iterations, never really landing on one that resonated. I finally abandoned Trell’s story thread and went to work on another character. That’s never happened to me before. I never leave a chapter until it’s the best it can be at that point in the story…until it resonates as complete and correct.

When I finally went back in and confronted Trell’s storyline six months later, I changed that character’s name again. I’d explored about seven different names for him by that point, through the eleven versions of the chapter that I’d struggled with. Then I came upon a new, very different name: Tannour. Suddenly the character sprouted to life in my mind; instantly I knew him intimately. I’d found the magic (word) name at last.

I made some very slight changes to the last version of the chapter that I’d written, and the scene miraculously worked. With the new character in place (new because of his new name), now the story had that certain resonance I’d been seeking.

I have no idea why this happens. I cannot explain why finding the right name for a character will suddenly cause their personality to form, whole and complete, in my head. It makes no sense that a name would suddenly give me such a firm understanding of who this person is, even though I don’t know them at all. Yet that’s how it happens. As soon as the name is right, the character’s personality is there for me, even though I know almost nothing about him or her at that point.

I generally gain better ideas as to where the person came from, what drives them, and what their intentions are as the story goes along. Within a few chapters, I’ll have figured out a good portion of their back story—at least as much as is needed to influence their dialogue.

The only character I’ve ever invented ahead of the story is Isabel van Gelderan, and that was only to the degree that I thought it would be cool to have a blind character that fights with a staff. Later, I saw an opening to give Isabel this characteristic, and she became, like all the others.

There is much less method to my crazily patterned series than you might imagine, and a lot more luck of the draw than any sane-minded person would ever base their career upon. But that’s the adventure for me in writing—finding those unexpected moments when things magically connect. It’s my hope they sometimes feel magical to you as well.

What’s worked for you in creating characters? I would love to know your process.

13 Responses to “How I Create Characters”

  1. Harvey Fox says:

    I love your blogs, and it is so very interesting to discover how you write. I love it! :).

    Cant wait for book 4. Will fill you in on my thought on FB as I read. Thank you for writing, for taking the time to write these delightful stories.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I’m so glad you find my posts interesting, Harvey. As a fiction writer, I’m so used to writing in my own world, it can be daunting trying to think of things that others would be interested in. I depend a lot on my readers to ask questions so I have something to write about on my blog!

      As always, thank you for reading. 🙂

  2. Stasha says:

    While I’m waiting for the kindle version to become available, I’m trying to tide myself over by reading the blog posts! Love this one, and super appreciate the effort you went through making your Pinterest board of the characters. I don’t generally imagine faces when I’m reading, as much as I do their body language and overall manner, so this was enjoyable way to add some depth to my own reading. You do love those strong jawlines, donchya? Hahaha 😉 They are all fabulous, great picks. I’ll admit, I was a bit thrown off by your choice for Alshiba, but I am pretty sure that’s just from my own associations with her as a child actor,

    Wishing you all the success possible! And looking forward to those prequels you’ve mentioned… 😀

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the blog post, Stasha. I definitely do love strong jaw lines. 😉

      It’s interesting sometimes how a reader will have exactly the same image of a character as I do, and other times it will be dramatically different. I’m glad you found things to appreciate in my choices, but just because they’re my choices doesn’t have to make them yours.

      It’s fun for me to try to find someone who represents the character in some fashion – and more difficult than you might think – but it has also been helpful to me. In the later books, particular images I pinned to a private board have inspired the creation of new characters, and others have assisted in describing a few of them, to help fill in those outlines you mention a little better.

      Thank you for your well wishes, and thank you for reading. 🙂

  3. Andre says:

    Just finished kingdom blades. Went way too quick? When are the movies/TV shows happening? Reading this blog I can see now what it is I felt in Trell’s story upon going back out to be a player. And even though his story took up what seems like half of part two I’m left wondering the significance.

    That said. Oh my are those concept pictures of the characters gorgeous. All the malorin’athgul, Isabel, Ean, even Tanisha fits. Though I’d have to give it to Balaji over Naair. So sad will be a long time before book 5. But awesome story.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I’m so glad you found my character picks to be true to your vision, Andre. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Kingdom Blades, and thank you for reading. 🙂

  4. Ahmad Alsulaimani says:

    When do you think book 5 will be released. I can’t wait… I picked up the first book of the series and have finished through books 1-4 in a week. Now I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to happen to Tanis and how all 3 brothers will meet again. Please tell me any sneak peeks on the 5th book of the series. All the Best – Ahmad

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I’m thrilled you’re enjoying the series so far, Ahmad. Getting through all of my voluminous books in one week is an impressive accomplishment!

      I’m only in the earliest planning stages of book five, unfortunately. Since Kingdom Blades just released in October, it will be a couple of years before the next one is ready.

      In the meantime, if you have any expectations or speculations for book five that you’d like to share, I would love to hear them. I’m trying to get a feel for where everyone thinks things are headed. Thank you for reading!

  5. Heather says:

    I was wondering if you have a target date for the fourth book to be available on Audible? I’ve been binge-listening the first three books and am almost ready for number 4! Thanks!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Kingdom Blades will be released on Audible in early 2017, Heather. I’m hearing late February/early March. As soon as I have a definitive date from my publisher, I’ll post to my blog. So glad you’re enjoying the series. Thank you for listening!

  6. Will says:

    Love your work. I have only written short stories. Many think I should do a novel. I found the way your characters come to you interesting. Mine come to me as a flowing, moving image. The body language, looks, and how they move then create the name.

    Most of my visualizations of your characters where a close match to the pictures. Except for Naiir I pictured more of a early to mid thirties and Bjorn more around thirty in appearance as well. Both still very fit but showing more maturity in their baring.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thanks for sharing a little of your process, Will. That’s very interesting in how they come to you. I always see the characters as if in a movie, but if I don’t have the name right, their personality doesn’t emerge in a way that resonates with the story. I find the whole subject fascinating because its so unique for everyone.

      I’m so glad a lot of the pictures found a home with you. I also see Bjorn as in his thirties. It was really hard finding anyone who even remotely resembled what he looks like in my head. I agree with you on Naiir also. All of then drachwyr have so much wisdom, it’s difficult to see them in their 20’s. 😉

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me, and thank you for reading.

  7. Rolina Eldis says:

    Heh, I totally get how you feel when coming up with Tannour. Had a similar experience, even starting to refer to a character derisively as “generic Eric” because I couldn’t for the life of me make him interesting. A change of name and nationality, and suddenly all kinds of ideas started popping into my head. ^-^

    I love reading your works, and to see that you come across the same hurdles I do kinda gives me hope for my own struggles writing short fiction. I look forward to Kingdom Blades when it comes out on audiobook!

Leave a Comment