Where Do Characters Come From? + Giveaway!

>> Tuesday, November 01, 2011

I'm thrilled to have a very special virtual author friend here today!  Many of you already know Elisabeth Spann Craig as the fab author who scours thousands of websites and blogs and tweets the plethora of amazing writing-related links she finds to quality articles. If you don't already follow Elizabeth on Twitter, you are missing out on a major cache of information! (@elizabethcraig).

Yesterday, Elizabeth released the third book in her Memphis Barbeque mystery series for Penguin/Berkley w/a Riley Adams.  If you haven't read one of Elizabeth's books, I recommend you pick one up.  She is a fabulous writer with fun storylines, twisting plots and quirky, real characters.

She's talking about where those characters come from today and we're giving away 3 copies of Elizabeth's new release HICKORY SMOKED HOMICIDE and 5 custom handmade bookmarks!  Just leave a comment to enter.


BBQ-joint owner Lulu Taylor knows pretty much everyone in Memphis who lives ribs. But one person she'd rather not know is Tristan Pembroke, a snooty pageant couch with a mean streak. When she finds Tristan's dead body stuffed in a closet at a party, the police are suspicious- especially since Lulu's developed a taste for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caught in a situation stickier than molasses, Lulu must clear her name, or risk getting fried... 

Where Characters Come From by Elizabeth Span Craig

Writers are frequently asked, “Where do your ideas come from?”

I think most writers have a stock answer to this question. We’ll claim brainstorming or muses, or just random inspiration out of the blue.

Those are all true. But sometimes, ideas come after us. And frequently, they’re in the form of characters. We can actually build a whole book around a great character. For me, and I’m sure it’s the same for many writers, characters are sometimes inspired in unusual ways:


There are tons of characters around us every day. Sometimes I’ll actively go looking for interesting people. Fairgrounds and amusement parks and malls are great for this purpose. It’s amazing how many different types of people you’ll see. Stiff and grim, young and bubbly, odd and self-conscious.

Sometimes these people will even come up and talk to me. Even if I’m not looking for characters, I’ll frequently have strangers come over to tell me the most remarkable things at the grocery store, drugstore, or post office. I think writers are magnets for these folks somehow—and they don’t even realize that’s what we are. The cool thing is that writers can take bits of one person (maybe their appearance) and bits of another person (their unusual gestures or diction or humor) and create a character that’s an amalgam of the two.

Acquaintances who don’t realize they’re characters:

Sometimes characters appear at the least expected times. There was another mother at my son’s soccer game once. She was scheduling me on the team snack calendar. I was smiling and nodding, but I didn’t hear a word she said because I was thinking how perfect she’d be as a character in the book I was writing. Even better that I didn’t know anything about her and that she was a stranger—in this case, it was her appearance that was so great. She was perfect for a particular bit part. But I missed my date to bring snacks and had to leave the game to grab some when my week came up. :)

Characters who create themselves:

Then, sometimes, you have characters who are too big for their britches. They hop into your head with confidence and they’re not like anyone you’ve ever met. Although they’re supposed to have a bit part in your book, they aren’t content with the role. Next thing you know, they’re taking over your book! They’re scene stealers—they have the best punch lines and shine in the spotlight. These are characters who don’t know their place…you really have to watch them. It’s how my supporting character Cherry ended up with a sidekick role in the Memphis Barbeque series.

Friends who give us insight into our characters:

Sometimes, the opposite problem happens—you have characters who really don’t know their role in your book. They listlessly bumble through their lines and you’re wondering what on earth they’re doing in your story at all. You’re just about to fire them for poor performance when there’s a breakthrough. I wasn’t really getting a handle on one of my beauty pageant characters for my new book, Hickory Smoked Homicide. Beauty pageants can be a big deal in the South, but they were something that I wasn’t personally involved with and was always happening on the periphery of where I was---maybe there was a Miss Anderson waving from a car in a Christmas parade I was watching, etc., but that was about the extent of my involvement. I was aiming for a spoofy, fun look at the pageant world, but I kept hitting a wall.

I was a third of the way through the book and about to scrap the whole concept and start over when I picked up my daughter from a playdate. The mom there asked me politely how my book was going. I’d been struggling with it the whole time my daughter was playing at her house, so I admitted, “You know, I’ve got a big problem with the book.” I told her my concept and the trouble I was having with this character. She said, “Come on inside and have a cup of coffee with me. I’ll give you the dirt on the pageant world.” And she did! There was plenty of motivation for murder there, she assured me. And she gave me a fascinating perspective from someone who’d been involved in small-town pageants.

What we’re all looking for, both readers and writers, is a good character—someone to love, someone to root for, someone to hate. And inspiration comes in unusual ways, sometimes.

Who are some of your favorite characters? Did they come to life for you? Comment to enter to win 1 of 3 copies of Elizabeth's new release HICKORY SMOKED HOMICIDE or 1 of 5 custom handmade bookmarks!
Books (US Shipping)
Bookmarks (International shipping)
**MUST** provide contact email to WIN!

Elizabeth’s latest book Hickory Smoked Homicide released November 1. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.

Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers
Twitter: @elizabethscraig


Temara,  1:08 AM  

One of my favorite characters is Sookie Stackhouse from the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. Sookie came to life for me and I felt like I was right there with her through everything. Thanks for the giveaway!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 2:52 AM  

Temara--Sookie is a fantastic character, isn't she? As a reader, I love to feel like I'm friends with a character...sort of the silent sidekick. :)

Joan--Thanks so much for having me here today! I love those bookmarks!

Margot Kinberg 4:18 AM  

Joan - Thanks for hosting Elizabeth.

Elizabeth - Nice to see you here (and thanks for the giveaway offer - margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com. You're so right about the way characters come to us. Sometimes I've had characters occur to me because of people I've actually met, too, although my characters are not based directly on them (Why do people ask us if they're in our books?). More than once I've also had characters just pop into my head, fully-formed. They want me to include them and they're very insistent. Either way, for me, characters are the basis for what I write. It all starts with a character. And since I write mysteries, that character is usually the victim.
Which characters have come to life for me? Gotta love Agatha Christie's Ariadne Oliver :-).

Jemi Fraser 4:34 AM  

Popping over from Elizabeth's!

Strangers are great sources of inspiration. I love people watching! I've never recreated an exact person into a story, but I've sure used bits and pieces of those interesting people! :)

Anonymous,  4:46 AM  

One of my characters is an eleven-year-old girl who "invented herself" for a project with my niece--who was then eleven. My niece is now a Carnegie-Mellon grad in Chemical Engineering.

Michelle "Mitch" Madison is still eleven. And, her story needs to be rewritten as a MG series rather than YA. Yup. She talks to me. I have a ten-year-old granddaughter now who keeps asking about my book. She can't read my current WIP (censored!), but Mitch is "next up" when I finish with my current project.

I don't know why...but that character, among all the other imaginary friends I've had over the years, "speaks" to me.

Congrats, again Elizabeth. We met on another blog earlier this week. Thanks for introducing me to another awesome read, Joan.

Kassie,  6:34 AM  

I agree with the Sookie comment for sure. I also really like Riley Jensen from the Keri Arthur Guardian Series. True for both Sookie and Riley, I enjoy discovering integral parts of a character's life and personality right along with them. You can connect to a character more when you feel like they are developing from the experiences happening right then as you read.

Christina Kit.,  6:49 AM  

One of my favorites is Archie Sheridan from Chelsea Cain's series.

He's tortured but resilient and you move along with him.

ccfioriole at gmail dot com

Joan Swan 7:24 AM  

Hi Elizabeth,

Great to have you and fantastic post. I've had all those characters in my books.

My main characters tend to create themselves, becoming more and more vivid through each revision. They are the most unique of the characters, yet the most familiar to me, since I'm with them the most.

I use more of the other techniques you mentioned with secondary and walk on characters. I think because they don't get as much time, they also don't get the opportunity to become as deep and detailed. Because they don't get as much of my attention, I tend to use more characteristics from aquaintances or strangers to develop them.

And isn't it funny how non-writers, family and friends always think you're using them in your book? I never use people I know in my books. One aspect of their personality, maybe, that fits a hundred thousand other people.

Thanks for visiting us Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 7:54 AM  

Margot--You and I have a lot in common with our approach to writing mysteries! I love starting with a victim, too. And Ariadne Oliver is an amazing character. :) Good pick!

Jemi--Thanks for coming by! I like using bits and pieces, too--if I use too much of a person, I'm afraid they'd call me on it!

Gloria--Some secondary characters or sidekicks *deserve* spinoffs! It happens in television, too--I'm thinking especially of "Frasier" after "Cheers." I know you'll love writing a book that your granddaughter can read! I have a 10 year old, myself. :) Your niece sounds like quite a woman!

Kassie--Good point about going along on a voyage of discovery *with* the character. After all, books focus on unusual events for these characters--it's not like an normal day. So it's natural they're learning about themselves as they face challenges and conflicts.

Christina--I think it's cool how you nailed that character with 2 words--tortured and resilient. That's good writing, there!

Joan--Isn't it funny how, when we get to know our characters really well, they feel like people we KNOW. I'm revising a backlist title of one of my books and realizing the protagonist is saying things that I now know she'd *never* say. I'm changing my dialogue a lot. :) I've just gotten to know her super well over the years.

Sometimes stock characters work well for secondaries, too--they're someone the reader will automatically "get" without having to invest a lot of time in a character with a bit part.

And you're so right about people thinking we're using them, when we're not. I've actually had someone upset with me before, sure that I'd included them in an unflattering role! But I hadn't...not even subconsciously. Sigh.

Jenn C 8:07 AM  

I know it may be an obvious one...but my favorite character is Jo March from Little Women. At least, she is until she turns down Laurie...I still haven't forgiven her for that but as I've gotten older, I can see why she made that choice.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 8:19 AM  

Jenn--I love Jo! She was a complex character--likeable, smart, flawed. I wish she hadn't turned Laurie down--never really warmed to the prof! But what a fantastic character. And I know Alcott drew from her own life to create her.

Rebecca 8:45 AM  

As characters go, I'm a big fan of Eve Dallas. She makes such a progression through each book! I often use snippets of the personalities of my family when I write... :)

Sherry Isaac 9:16 AM  

Hello Elizabeth,

Popped over to your blog and bookmarked it, and am now following you on Twitter.

I don't like picking favorites because it is so dependent on the mood I'm in at the moment. Love Kinsey Milhone in Sue Grafton's series, and Melrose Plant in Martha Grime's Richard Jury series.

For my own characters, today, it's Maggie Cleaver from Homecoming. I found out yesterday that Maggie lugs around a humungous purse full ready for any emergency. She even stocks suppositories, which did come in handy when a constipated cop once stopped her for speeding. The remedy got her out of the ticket. I mean, really, I could not have constructed that little sidestep for a million dollars, but Maggie, bless her, (and I already pointed out above) came prepared.

Sherry Isaac 9:17 AM  

WOOP! sherry(dot)isaac(at)yahoo(dot)com

GzNKz4evr 10:03 AM  

That was a terrific post Elizabeth. I really enjoyed reading all of it. You answer, what I would consider, the biggest question we have as readers. I haven't read many mysteries. I tend to gravitate toward romance and more recently paranormal. But I have found that limiting myself both to specific authors and genres only causes me to miss out. Therefore, I am pretty much open to anything anymore. I shudder to think how long I read with blinders on and consequently missed out on so much. I have much catch-up! *nods* I love that Joan used "quirky" when describing your books. One thing I tend to enjoy in books is quirky characters. I will definitely add you to my "to-read" list. Thanks so much!

GzNKz4evr 10:04 AM  

Geeze! You'd think I would remember my e-mail by now. ACK!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 10:16 AM  

Rebecca--I like those snippets of family, too. :) Of course, I'd never admit it to them!

Sherry--Thanks for the follow! And I LOVE Melrose Plant. He's one of my most favorite characters. Especially when he interacts with his aunt. (And when he built that hermit cottage--ha!)

Maggie sounds like a fantastic character! It sounds like you've got a real lock on her personality. And humorous characters can be so easy for readers to relate to. I can just see her with her huge pocketbook!

Kendra--Thanks so much! And I know what you mean--for years I stuck with one genre to read...and not even different subgenres! The last couple of years I've been reading books by blogging friends, reading books I hear about from friends, etc. My Kindle has helped with this too, I think--when I hear about a book now, I download it right away. I feel like my reading is a lot better-rounded now. :)

Na,  10:38 AM  

I have so many favorite characters and they all in some way come to life for me and reside in many worlds -historical, present or paranormal. Some aren't even human :)
I like Alaina and Cole from Ashes in the Wind.
Roarke and Eve from the Death series by J.R. Robb.
Mac and Barrons from the Fever series.

Many of these characters feel like family and friends. They do come to life and I like to re-visit and see how they are doing from time to time.

Cambonified(at)yahoo(dot)com (Canada)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 11:55 AM  

Na--I've noticed that anytime I get an email from a reader, they ask about the next book because they want to catch up with the protagonist. The mystery is sort of just a background thing. :)

Carol Kilgore 12:37 PM  

I can totally relate to characters who show up and take over. A walk-on in my just-finished manuscript was supposed to be a man of mystery, showing up at the midway point, and going away. Before I ever reached midway, there he was. He gave the hero the boot and took over.

Nice to meet you, Joan.

Linda McDonald 12:56 PM  

I love this interview on characters. You're right...strangers are great for character making and sometimes it truly is amazing what they'll say to someone they don't know....or what you may overhear them saying. :) Congrats on your latest release. Reading the title makes me want to eat some BBQ'd food right now. Oh, and yes characters do come to life for me. I'm convinced that Harry Potter and all his friends are real. :)


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 1:09 PM  

Carol--That's quite a walk-in! Wow. He must have had 'leading man' written all over him!

Linda--If Harry isn't real, don't tell me! I don't want to know. :) Hope you'll have some BBQ for dinner! I've been in the mood for it lately, too.

C0 1:48 PM  

Another source of characters is fiction. I often take certain archetypes from stories and put them into characters, sometimes adding a twist.

I had taken inspiration from people though. One character I use in a RP as an appearance inspired by two different people.

And for some of the characters, I recycle the basic structure of previous ones, and let it grow out. For example, the co-protagonist of my main project had the "small and shy" skeleton of a character in my first fan-fic.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 2:16 PM  

C0--Good tips. You're right--we can put our own unique spin (or the evolving character's) on a number of archetypes or stock characters...making a character that's both new and familiar at the same time.

Pamela Beason 2:23 PM  

A lot of my characters come from the news. All you have to do is pay attention to newspaper and TV stories, and you'll see notice a lot of interesting folks. I also work as PI and come across various intriguing types, whether they are clueless victims, charming criminals, or sometimes overzealous witnesses. My great fear is that my relatives and friends will think some of my characters are based on them. Hey, just because it's the same locale and it's me writing doesn't mean it's you on the page--it's fiction!

L. Diane Wolfe 2:32 PM  

Little bits of people I know make it into my characters, but I tend to just assign a personality and then build a character around it.

Clarissa Draper 2:59 PM  

I write code-based mysteries and often I come up with the new code before I come up with the killer and then I come up with the other characters. Does that make any sense? However, I have created characters the same way Elizabeth has. They come from everywhere.

Sheree 3:43 PM  

Sometimes it's tough to connect with a character when I haven't been exposed to a person like that. Still, if the writing is solid and the plot interesting, I stick around for the read and sometimes by the end, I'd really like the character.

ironss [at] gmail [dot] com

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 4:58 PM  

Pamela--I tell my family the same thing--it's fiction. Now they may recognize some stuff in there, but it's fiction. The news is a fantastic source! I've forgotten that--I've used the local news before for shady characters in my book. :)

Diane--That's an approach I've used before, too. Thanks for coming by. :)

Clarissa--I think it's amazing that you can come up with codes! And build mysteries around them, too. I'm excited about your upcoming release!

Sheree--I know what you mean. I think if a writer is creating a really unique character, it helps if they create some sympathy for the character somehow or just some way for the reader to relate to him. Very good point.

Alex J. Cavanaugh 6:25 PM  

I don't use people I know, but strangers always provide some interesting fodder.

Cheryl 6:50 PM  

Mine's from a paranormal/UF series by Rob Thurman. I absolutely love Nico Leandros; he'll do anything for his brother and he kicks butt.

I never really thought about how writers come up with characters. Have you ever had anyone recognize herself/himself and not like the character? Yeah, it's a little paranoid, but that's what I'd totally be terrified of if I had a writer friend.

Thanks for the giveaway!


Kristin 8:23 PM  

Do my favorite characters come to life for me? They totally have to if they're going to be considered my favorites. If I have to tell myself not to get so worked up over a character or story because it's fictional, I know the author did a great job.

A few of my favorite characters include Connor Grey from the Mark del Franco's series; Dru from Lili St. Crow's Strange Angels series; Cassel Sharpe from Holly Black's Curse Worker series; and just about any character Rob Thurman writes.


DiannaMarie23,  8:33 PM  

My characters are either part fiction, part quirks of family members and friends, or just something that popped into my head. Though one character is almost fully based of off someone I met by chance while playing in the park with my daughters. The person was just so adorable and intersting, I couldn't help myself. I copied her physical appearance and her obsession with sports (while still staying 'girlie')and she became the perfect side kick to my main character. :)


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 3:43 AM  

Alex--Strangers are fantatic, aren't they? And sometimes the stranger the strangers, the better! :)

Cheryl--Great characters!

I've noticed that no one really tells me any secrets anymore! I'd never do anything with personal stories or secrets, but I guess family and friends are still too nervous to divulge any!

Kristin--I've done that before, too--told myself, as a reader, that it wasn't *real.* But it felt real, so kudos to those authors!

Ooh...good choices for favorite characters!

Dianna--Sounds like a great character! Isn't it funny how sometimes characters introduce themselves to us? Almost as if they know we're writers. :)

Jennifer 1:09 PM  

Two of my favorite characters are Eve Dallas and Clare Cosi from Cleo Coyle's Coffehouse Series. I like strong independent women that don't let anything stand in their way and I can relate to these characters. Thanks for the giveaway.


Dorte H 1:22 PM  

Thank you Joan for hosting Elizabeth (who is MY crutch when I get stuck in a cosy mystery).

Elizabeth, you know already that Myrtle from one of your other series is a great favourite of mine, but that may be because I have not got round to read more than one of your Memphis Barbecue books yet.

I also draw on real life when I create characters, but more in the way that I use my general knowledge about how certain people (colleagues, students, relatives, old friends, my hairdresser etc) would react in certain situations.

And I also explore the very nasty, inner me ;) Today I wrote a scene between the slighted wife and the mistress. My, I enjoyed being sarcastic!

do.hu.ja (at) mail.tele.dk

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 1:41 PM  

Jennifer--I'll let Cleo know you mentioned Clare--a great character, for sure! It's always great to read strong female leads. Cleo and I are on the Mystery Lovers Kitchen blog together--always a lot of fun!

Dorte--You write fantastic cozies! And I'll admit that I really love Myrtle, myself. :)

Oh, exploring our dark sides! That's always kind of fun, isn't it? Great point!

Anonymous,  2:16 PM  

I am a natural people watcher since I am a bit more reserved in groups. I have one character that was encountered while eating out with my family that is screaming for her own story. Soon...hopefully.

l_k_hunziker(at) hotmail ( dot) com

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 2:18 AM  

Loraine--I like to watch people, too--sometimes even when I'm in a group! I'm terrible at parties, which is probably why I'm not invited to many. :)

Your character will probably start showing up in your dreams soon if you don't write her! LOL!

June M. 7:35 PM  

Hi, I have not read any of this author's (Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams) books yet but since I love books with humor, I can easily see myself loving them. Thank you so much for sharing with us how your characters develop.
Btw, those bookmarks are beautiful.
June M.
manning_j2004 at yahoo dot com

Joan Swan 12:58 PM  

WINNERS courtesy of Random.org:

Carole Kilgore
Jennifer Calvert
Margot Kinbert

Jenn C

Thanks everyone for coming by the blog. I will email you to get your addresses!!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams 3:33 PM  

June--Thanks for coming by! And I agree--the bookmarks are gorgeous!

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