Bringing Characters out of the Shadows

Do characters follow you around, shadowing you with their persistent presence until you finally write their stories? They lurk half-baked, in the back of your mind, waiting impatiently until you find a way to bring them out of the shadows.

Last week I immersed myself in a craft writing workshop.  Every day, there were story exercises, and luckily, I could draw from this retinue of half-baked shadows in my mind to populate my assignments.  Who are some of these shadows?

  • Interesting, real people—Sometimes I meet someone who fascinates me (the “why” is not always clear), and I think one day I must use him or her in a story.  When the time comes to fictionalize that person, I ask myself:  “What has motivated this person to bring him or her to this particular place in life?”
  • Fictional characters—Sometimes there’s a character who behaves in an interesting way.  This is usually a secondary character who has popped unbidden into another story.  I have to ask this character:  “What are you doing in my story?  Why are you acting this way?”
  • Myself—Sometimes I wonder who I would be if I found myself in a different time and place, under different circumstances, if I’d chosen a different turning point in my past.  I’d be a different person.  And I have to ask myself:  “How would I react in this new situation?  What would motivate me?”

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions!  There are only unique answers, and that’s a good thing.

The author’s unique spin on what motivates these shadows will produce a unique character to populate story.  The author brings his or her own experience to the subject matter, and that produces something unique.  One really valuable piece of writing advice I learned in another workshop some years ago has become my mantra:  “Write the story that only you can write.”

Digging deep into motivation and adding all these pieces together bring my characters out from the shadows.  What are your methods?


9 thoughts on “Bringing Characters out of the Shadows”

  1. I grew up the daughter of a Church of Christ minister and a teacher. There are so many different types of people and stories you meet in that type of environment. I filed them all away and occasionally pull them out. Sometimes its pieces of books and movies and music, conversations that spark some idea. Sometimes I don’t have any idea where my shadow people come from…


  2. I’m reading David Corbett’s The Art of Character and that is exactly what he is teaching, dig deep. There are loads of exercises which are yielding some very juicy scenes. Thanks for the topic!


  3. Re: a character who “popped unbidden into another story” — in book 1, I had a character show up and refuse to do what I wanted…it ended up changing the entire plot! I do trust that when something unexpected emerges during the writing, it’s worth exploring. Then again, I have written huge sections and then unwritten them (that sounds nicer than deleted) because of such appearances, too… 😉 But I like the discovery aspect.


  4. 36 plus years of good guys and bad guys and lots of, for lack of a better word, JERKS, on both sides were begging to be included in the pages of my fiction. The hardest characters to write are the good guys so I made them not quite so good. More fun that way. And I’m just getting started…


  5. Keenan, I will have to look for Corbett’s book. Sounds interesting!

    Cynthia, I had a character like that who wanted to take over the book. I like the idea of “unwriting” them once they have their say.

    Kait, I love the idea of a flip chart mind–exactly!

    Good luck, Mike. I agree that the good guys are harder to write. Isn’t it fun to bend them to the needs of our fiction?!!


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