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.


22 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!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you so much, Rolina. I’m glad to know others had a similar experience. I would love your thoughts on Kingdom Blades now that it’s been released.

  8. Stephen says:

    I am someone who has read hundreds of SFF books, I’m a huge fan on the genre however I don’t “get” women authors. I tried, I have read dozens of popular and higly recommended novels but I never fell in love, and for me that’s the whole point of reading.

    That one book that makes you stop after a cool scene in realization that this is something special. That is why I read and that feelng makes the bad, mediocre and good enough books worth the effort.

    With women authors however I’m stuck. I try again and again but there’s nothing. The female perspective either falls flat or does more harm than good to the story…

    My point is, what would you say to someone like me ? Your personal history seems interesting and relevant, you seem smart and I enjoyed reading these posts…I am intrigued! however just seeing that picture with the girl and the 3 studs gives me Twilight flashbacks… and some of loving reviews from your fans also make me worried.

    I am sure this is a clever series, however I don’t know if its for me…

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Hi Stephen,

      I really appreciate the honesty and forthrightness of your comment and will try to respond in kind. I recall having a similar observation at one point in my fantasy journey. I recall the moment I realized that the majority of the series I was reading were by men, and wondering at it. But since that time I’ve found many series by female authors that I’ve connected with – CS Friedman, Jaqueline Carey and Anne McCaffrey all come quickly to mind as the authors of some of my favorite series – so in my case, I rather think it was a product of the time more than a lasting concern.

      Yet, to be fair, the majority of the books in my library were written by men. Some would say that this is a male-dominated market, but I can’t say if that’s truth or not. What I can say is that I like books with action and high adventure, with swashbucklers and rakes and heroes with incredible integrity. I like my villains depthful and menacing, and wickedly smart. And I like real communication. I don’t want to read about petty, small-minded people, or the plight of the perpetual victim, all of whom can’t manage to tell their real feelings, or are too afraid to hold their ground against adversity, or are just too petty to see the bigger picture. I’m uninterested in the entire genre of women’s fiction for reasons I won’t expound on here. And by these statements, I’m not pointing fingers at one gender or another, I’m merely saying I haven’t always found everything I wanted in some of the books I’ve read.

      But here’s the thing, Stephen: writers are telling the stories they want to tell, about issues that are important to them, to the audience they feel is right for their message. And not all writers are good writers, and not all good writers are good storytellers, and not all good writers who are also good storytellers are going to be presenting a message that is interesting to you.

      One of the things humanity is best programmed to do is to differentiate. To say how we’re different from one another. To draw lines of division. The ability to differentiate is actually sanity (its opposite, identification, A=A=A, is a qualifying definition of insanity). Yet where agreement is to be found among us, it’s found by finding ways we’re the same, not by focusing on dividing lines. It is a truism that the eyes do not see what the mind does not want.

      Do I think you’ll like my books? I honestly have no idea, because I don’t know what you’re looking for in your fantasy. But I can say that if you go into a story with a preconceived idea that you don’t like stories by women writers – even if it’s always proven true before – you’ll find those things that you don’t like – those points of differentiation – more than you’ll find points of agreement. Because you won’t be looking for the things you can agree with. You’ll be looking – consciously or unconsciously – for the dividing outnesses that prove your own point true.

      With all of this said and understood, I can say that the audience for my books is very smart. They’re deep thinkers, interested in making meaningful connections with characters, enjoy exploring philosophical ideas, and want to spend their time with characters who demonstrate integrity – perhaps even value it above morality (but that would be one of those philosophical points worth exploring, right?). First and foremost, they want to be entertained.

      I consider those pluses, but everyone doesn’t. People who haven’t liked my books have found it difficult to get into the story, or they hit too many words they didn’t understand (I’ve never recovered from the season they tied to dumb-down the TV series Lost. I’d rather lose a reader than use a word that doesn’t as well convey my thoughts, just because its more commonly understood.) I write to smart readers, which means I expect you’re able to track seven viewpoint characters in the first seven chapters. This means you’ll be twenty-one chapters into the book but only three chapters into the story. It takes some time to figure out what the hell is going on or how any of these storylines connect. But for those who can mentally juggle as many storylines as I can and are willing to let me carry them along not entirely understanding things, the payoff is really worth it. Some readers just can’t hang with that. I’m sure there are many other reasons I’ve lost readers. These are the common ones I know about. I don’t think I’ve lost any of them because I’m a woman.

      Thanks for a posing a truly intriguing question. 🙂

      • Stephen says:

        That is a very good reply! You made some very good points, some I have considered others where really clever and surprising!

        I will say the that I always tried to keep an open mind and give any series a fair chance, both for “moral” reasons but mostly for selfish ones… who doesn”t want to read a good book ? Am I biased ? Everyone is… but I’m no ascetic monk high on truth and enlightment, I can’t be more fair than I already am.

        Another issue is that I started reading the best books the genre has to offer, and most of them are written by men for various reasons. When I read the first fantasy series by a woman I already had dozens and dozens of great books under my belt so it became harder to appreciate. For example at first I was a huge Sanderson fan but after a few years I can’t stand his writing.I am sure I would have been a lot more charitable towards many authors (male or female) a few years ago.

        Anyway, I just finished the second book, starting paths of Alir tomorrow. I will say that I am impressed!only After the first few chapters you became my favorite female author, now I might be optimistic, I get a feeling book 3 is very important to the series…I will say this series has top 10 potential easily!

        One thing that you do really well is create hype for the reader, at least for me. The series promises a lot, the question is if/how it will deliver. In my mind at least the sense of anticipation is probably the most important feeling a book can create.

        As for the content itself, there are many things I like but also many things I don’t get. It’s hard to judge by book 2 and that’s a good thing! I don’t like the romances mostly. I think Ean and Trell fall in love to fast and you missed 2 great sources of conflict and intrigue. With Ean you have questions of identity, how much is he “himself” vs his past self. With Trell there are questions of fate, duty and meddling gods. Things go too neatly for him, I would be skeptikal of a girl that falls into my lap in those conditions… Also the main cast are all great people, too great, they need some more flaws.One more thing I didn’t understand is why you give us a close up of the bad guys. Sure, it’s a great way to ask many philosophical questions but at the same time the mistery is diminished. I’m more scarred of a bad guy in the shadows who might kill me then a a bad guy in the open who will.

        I am no writer and English is my third language, still I think this is this is your weakest area. In terms of quality thete’s plenty of it, the problem is consistency. Things go from great to good to bad…it’s all over the place. All those arched eyebrows remind me of tugging braids. Many times you don’t trust your reader, that is weird because if I’m still here it means I’m a fan! Don’t treat me like an idiot. I can think of dozens of ocassions when the characters say something, I get it , and then you repeat the same point. You don’t like to give your characters a chance to speak, you like to “meddle” with your own voice.

        The main point however, and I think the most important one, is that you managed to create both anticipation and trust. I can ignore the writing I don’t like easily. I can ignore the things I don”t like about the characters and plot because you convinced me there’s a greater pattern I don’t see(wink!)and you also made it clear you are clever enough to make it work. Overall the first 2 books feel like you are setting a stage for us, book 3 needs some old fashioned suffering so I can care and root for these characters while their true(and flawed)selves come to the surface.

        Damn, that was a long comment… hope I didn’t ramble too much…anyway I am glad I gave the series a try. It is clear you love these books and that you also worked hard for your readers! If nothing else, you already won my respect and admiration!

        • Melissa McPhail says:

          Thank you for the detailed feedback, Stephen. I appreciate the time you took to elucidate your thoughts about Ean and Trell’s characters.

          I know what you mean about flaws; one of my beta readers pointed this out to me early in book one. Believe it or not, this is my attempt to make them more flawed. You should have seen them when I started! I’m sure you’re correct that the characters could have more flaws and thereby offer more opportunities for growth.

          I remember Lee Child’s introduction to his first Jack Reacher novel. He pointed out how a lot of heroes are flawed or bungling and manage to pull things together at the end, but he wanted to write a hero who was successful through and through. I’d like to think that’s where I’m coming from also. I do try to challenge my characters (you’ll see more of that – I hope – in books three and four), but ultimately I want to write characters who my readers can look up to. People whom they want to emulate, or at least who they want to spend time with. Our flaws make us human, but they’re not always interesting or fun to be around for very long.

          Seeing the world through the perspective of the “bad” guys is an important aspect of my series. I’m writing allegorical fantasy. It’s vital to the story that my readers see all sides of the conflict, not just the side belonging to the ones we expect to be the heroes. A lot of fantasy is very one-sided. You never saw things from the Dark One’s perspective in WoT, or even through the eyes of many of the Forsaken, but I bet the story would’ve been much more depthful and intriguing – even potentially heart-wrenching – if you knew what drove Lanfear to become who she was, or Rahvin and Asmodean to make the choices they made. Villians don’t set out to become villains. We all feel justified in our motives. The ultimate evil vs. ultimate good story has been explored ad adfinitum. I’m interested in exploring the shades of grey, and the idea that both sides might be justified in their intentions.

          I’m sorry about all of the arched eyebrows. I have seen those to be a bit of a crutch. I’m trying to tone them down – LOL.

          In terms of not trusting the reader…it would be helpful to have an example, but at the same time I think I get what you mean. What you might not realize is that everyone isn’t as quick to the point as you probably are. You’d be surprised at the things that get missed – sometimes very important things. So repetition is actually necessary. I hope you’ll grant me tolerance on that point on behalf of the many others who need it.

          I think the old-fashioned suffering is coming. I would love your feedback after books three and four. I really appreciate it.

          Thank you for reading. 🙂

  9. Ben says:

    Perhaps it is the voices that Nick Podehl is giving to your characters along with the names you have given them. But I have been envisioning all the characters with a distinctly darker skin tone. Very middle eastern, northern Africa. With the exception of the Val Lorian clan, those I am seeing as though they were from Denmark, Norway, Sweden & Finland. Danes in the very sense of the word.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      We see them similarly it seems, Ben. The Val Lorians are definitely Anglican in my eyes, while most of the others are Mediterranean or Middle Eastern – especially the immortals. 🙂

  10. johnhy says:

    Hello!

    What are your thoughts on characters swearing ? Do you have swearing in these books ?(if yes, what kind, “light” or “everything”) Also, what is the ideal demographic for these novels ? Who can appreciate them most ??

    Thanks!!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I try to come up with swear words that are unique to the different cultures in the book. “Dagmar’s dungeon,” “Belloth’s black balls,” “Shade and darkness.” These all have stories behind their origin that are germane to the peoples in each culture and to the story itself. I occasionally use Old English words such as shite and fethe, but these are more rare. I particularly try not to use any words that would be considered vulgar in today’s vernacular, but it’s silly to imagine a world where no one swears.

      I honestly have a very wide demographic – from about 24 to 65+, according to my ads tracking info, both male and female, primarily fantasy readers. If you like epic fantasy, you’ll probably like my books. Or if you like strong characters and deep philosophical thought posed through allegory, you’ll probably like my books. There are six chapters on my website, and Amazon allows the same in a sample chapter download. Thanks for your interest.

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