Writers: where do your characters come from?

Sometimes I see writers saying that their characters contain representations of themselves, and some may end up being closer to themselves than others. I saw a video clip of Emerald Fennell saying that she sees all her characters as equally “her” because they all come from her brain, and it made me curious: when you are making NPCs for your game, do you use aspects of yourself for them? Do they feel like fleshed-out people to you (and do you feel you have control over them, or that they “guide” the story sometimes)? Do you get initial sparks of ideas that grow into a character, or does a whole character form at once for you? Do you get inspired from particular places when deciding which characters to start writing or develop further?

Relatedly, I enjoyed rereading the below thread which discusses how much detail about characters is pinned down before writing.


In my case they start as concepts, vague ideas from my head: “a blond mecha pilot with no care for anything but piloting”, “a shape-changing woman, a beauty from the beast”, “a coward with good heart and extreme passiveness”. Then, once I start working on them, they slowly get their names, appearance, character, little quirks and details, they become actual characters, not vague bunches of ideas.

I never viewed them as representations of myself: I am a human being that is totally separate from, say, a man brainwashed against his side or a member of other species that look human and act somewhat human, yet aren’t fully such. They’re toys, pretty dolls I like to look at and write and instruments for the story - and while I care about them and try to male them human, they’re just creations from my head in the end.


I’m sure you were reading my mind @vera. Why else would your reply be what I had in mind.
Though I must admit you have a greater imagination than I at the end of it. And then some.

Mine come from a lot of places, although plenty of them originate from me playing what-if on existing stories that stick with me for one reason or another. (I think I have… dozen? Victor von Dooms by now.) Some of my plotlines are born that way too.

They don’t all start very detailed (“old friens of the mysterious NPC” is, after all, also a beginning of a character) but the longer they reside in my brain and the more I actually use them, the more refined they get. I have some 20-year-old ones who practically write themselves.

They are not “me” in any shape or form (well, maybe some are, but it’s not like author avatar is some unknown concept), although I sometimes live vicariously through them :sweat_smile: but sometimes they do end up with some similarities to myself. Write what you know and all that. Currently, it’s multilingual Nordic people.


I think it would be very difficult to not put at least parts of yourself and your experiences into your characters.
Even if they are based majorly on some person you know, or characters from other works, they’ll still be coloured by your own subjective perception of those people/characters, and not on an objective idea of who they are.
But my characters are definitely not me, or part of me. Not any more than any other piece of my art is me. They are my creations, and they were grown from part of me (and I’m sure a lot can be discovered about me, by looking into my art and characters and stories, and drawing some conclusions), but they are very much their own selves.

I find that the main character of a story tend to be one of the first things that come to me, if not the very first idea. They are just so intrinsically tied to the story (themes and/or plot) that they have to be a huge part of developing that story, just like developing the story shapes who they end up being.
Side characters usually appear later, either through necessity or conscious effort.

For me, a lot (but far from all) my main characters have started as a character I made from some other purpose, like for an rpg tabletop or videogame. When making up a backstory, my mind simply went amok, and their story ended up growing way out of the bounds that make sense for the game.
Other times, it starts with an a tiny idea for a story, that I then either develop or discover-write into something more substantial, and the characters kinda just appear as a part of that.
(There’s definitely also been times when the original inspiration has been seeing characters in other media, and then either getting annoyed/frustrated or just thinking ‘hmm, but what if…?’)

I can’t remember if it was in that very thread, or somewhere else, but I’m pretty sure I have expressed my opinion before, that it is dangerous to develop either characters or story too far in front of the other. It should be done at least somewhat simultaneously, or you will end up having developed annoying barriers for your creativity or might end up with a lack of coherence between the different parts of your work.


On the other hand, I’ve found “throw established characters in a random situation and see what happens” quite viable tactic at times!


I sometimes put my consciousness inside many characters’ bodies, so much so that they become heroes or villains of the story.

I think I have even been able to know what things can make my psyche turn good and bad that I have created these character archetypes:

  • Character of the story who has a lineage that he is afraid of (either genetic that gives him abilities or a family linjae from belonging to an organization).

  • A traitor of the main character because he feels that the protagonist has abandoned him and, let’s say, being his only moral anchor, there is nothing left to want to preserve the current state of his world by being an “outcast” and therefore he collaborates with the villains to destroy that world that marginalized him and belong to a new “elite” founder of the new world and hope to at least obtain benefits from it.

  • Finally, a villain archetype who fights against the heroes of his world by being just a normal human who depends on technology until his son is born with powers and deals with an internal conflict since there is his hatred of superpowers but also his love. to his family as well as to his wife’s oath to always take care of the family.

All of these archetypes have a part of me in them plus I developed my own stories so that they follow their own path.


Sure, it can definitely be a way to do things.
But I would still argue that the characters being very defined puts limits on what situations those could be, what story can be told.
At least if you want to make stories where characters, plot, and themes come together in a cohesive, well-crafted work, that has impact.
Because not all stories can be told by all characters.

(sorry, my brain is refusing to phrase that less grandiose right now. I don’t mean it as condescending as I’m afraid it sounds :sweat_smile:)

I see your point in a sense, but I’m not convinced it’s any more limiting than deciding, say, your genre is. If I pick my main character to be a hotshot contemporary private detective on a fictional country on Earth, why would I then try to make a story about interstellar war between stuffed animals and robot handbags?

(What I mean to say is, while established characters come with a baseline, you can still decide a situation they could be in, and I don’t see that much differently than deciding the situation first, and then starting to create characters.)

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I would actually be interested to see the AC6 characters in a coffee shop AU. For shits and giggles, mainly, but still…

I think we might be talking past each other.

is not an established character, in my mind, it’s just the initial concept.

I’m more talking about the characters’ flaws and backstory, their deep secrets and inner wounds and needs.
When those traits are already firmly set, it limits which stories can be told about them, because their story arcs should be connected to those things.
Genre and setting is in many ways (but not completely) just set dressings for the story, and are somewhat interchangeable.


That was actually an existing character of mine, who has actually starred in multiple alternate universes, not some random description.

(…glerbh, technical difficulties.)

I’m saying that that exact description not fitting into certain genres and settings, is not what I was talking about. Not that it can’t be a quick description of a fully fledged character.

My point is that I think we are using terms differently, and so we are talking past each other.

But this discussion is getting really specific, and I don’t know how much it fits the topic anymore. So if you want to continue it, I would appreciate if that could be over PMs instead.
I don’t want an ongoing discussion between the two of us to make people feel they can’t post their takes on the original question. :sweat:

(Edit: And to be clear, I fully agree with you that the same character can be put in many different genres and stories)

Character creation is a fascinating subject for me as well.

All of my characters are reflected from my mind’s lens, so there is no doubt that there is something of me in each of them.

The more I develop the character, the more fleshed out each becomes.

I generally dictate the broad strokes of their arcs, but they will often fill in the details themselves when their individual characteristics and quirks come into play.


This is challenging to answer because I can form a character at once, but they continually evolve and change throughout the narrative and the writing drafts. A character may be very different from an alpha concept to the final copy.

Yes. I research each of my major npc characters and if a minor character grows into a major character I do research on them as well.


I think, while characters are definitely not me, I do tend to put a part of myself in them. If a character’s story arc is all about grief of losing someone, then I’m drawing from my own subjective experiences with grief. If the character has anger issues, I’m drawing from my experience with anger to build them, even if I don’t have those same issues. That’s not to say that, even in those aspects, I’m not informed by what I’ve read of others’ experiences, but ultimately I only have my own first-hand experience of life.


I mean, why wouldn’t you?! I would totally pay money for this novel–just saying. :rofl:

At least for me, it’s hard to not put some piece of myself into a (main) character when I’m writing prose fiction. As someone with anxiety, I’ve noticed that some of my short stories are a kind of desensitization process where I put a character in [terrible situation] because it’s something I would hate to experience myself. So in that sense, some of my characters are 100% supposed to be versions of myself. (Even if, uh, they usually don’t share my gender or anything else about me!)

Interestingly, with interactive fiction I find I don’t approach characters this way at all. Probably because I’m usually writing “the player” in mind as an amorphous anybody, and instead I’m thinking “who would be interesting to interact with?” or “who would force the player to advance the story the most?”

In these cases, I usually pull from archetypes. So I might start with “the big bad doesn’t want to be evil” or “the spoiled rich brat who’s emotionally traumatized” and then explore what that would mean in the world I’m thinking about. (Both of those are from The Bread Must Rise.)

The “Which comes first?” question is an interesting one. For me, I almost always get my initial story ideas as a kind of mind picture of a person in an extremely specific situation–doing some kind of action or making some kind of decision. After that, I tend to work backwards and create the plot and world and characters all at once. So for me, character and plot usually inform one another! (Not always, though. Sometimes my mind picture concepts are more like movie voiceover guy’s “In a world… where [interesting thing]…” And sometimes I even get them from listening to a talk at an academic library conference, ha.)

I think this is part of why so much of the fiction I write is flash fiction. I sometimes have a hard time moving very far past that initial concept, because it’s really what interests me the most. So it’s much more fun for me to write 750 words of a fictional guide for sentient ships who want to change their names with no characters as such at all than it would be to turn that concept into a whole novel with fully developed characters, conflict and plot and etc.

Over the years as a writer, though, I’ve learned that everybody tends to have a wildlly different approach to everything, and none of them are wrong. It’s just that when people say “this is the way to do it” there’s usually an implied for me at the end of it. So I could totally see a process where someone does just come up with characters and then builds a world way later. Or where someone comes up with the world and then builds characters way later.

Fonda Lee, for example, talks about coming up with characters by thinking about people she would want to date. :laughing: That definitely wouldn’t work for me at all!! But it seems to work out great for her, considering the success of Jade City and its sequels.

I also remember reading an article somewhere once about writers who said they didn’t tell their characters what to do. Instead, they concieved of their characters as “real people” who were making their own decisions, and they were just writing them down. That idea is so foreign to me that I think it’s bizarre–but these were all professional novelists and respected writers, so clearly that approach works really well for some people!


That’s a not uncommon approach among CoG writers, either, to judge from some past conversation threads. Here’s what I said on one about a year ago (engaging with a fellow forum member who, unlike you, Stewart, was using stronger words than “bizarre/foreign to me” in response to the my-characters-steer-me framing):

Funnily, since writing that, I’ve been finding that metaphor more and more apposite in my work – much of what I’ve written in the past year+ really has felt more like discovery than design. I basically never get a whole character formed at once, and until I start writing them I usually have only a general sense of the kind of person they’re going to be. More and more, I’ve found myself surprised by what comes bubbling out when I start that process, and how it takes things in a rather different but truer-feeling direction than I’d initially expected.

On other questions… There’s some part of me in just about all my characters, but almost never the most important part of them. Many of them are much more shaped on people I know, or have observed, or have read about.

And I definitely don’t go down the route of writing their birthdays and favorite music and everything about them in advance. As features of the character become relevant to the picture I’m painting in the story, I come up with them, not otherwise.


I come up with my characters by really just thinking of most people I know, and past moments.
I mean sometimes I’ll go on pinterest and look at pictures I imagine my characters look like…

I feel you, my characters are just little parts of me but bigger :laughing: we all have our moments.
But the real thing I love about reading is when you finish reading a scene you can just imagine it in your head. Like I’ll literally put my book down for a few minutes and think of the scene in my head like a movie.

But-- I don’t really go and put their favorite things, I just use a random generator for that. Most of my characters names are randomly thought. I did change one tho once. :sweat_smile:

Like visualizing a story is the only thing I wanna do for a IF :blush:

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The short answer, they’re in my head.

The long answer… Wooh, it’s a doozy.

It’s been so long since I first heard it that I honestly forget who originated the method, but I draw up mental imagery whenever I begin creating a new character.

A bar, a restaurant, the movies, etc. Doesn’t matter the place, as long as I can see myself having a one-on-one conversation with that person. Think of it like a casual interview.

I’ll ask them questions. Serious ones. Stupid ones. Outright ridiculous ones. Many will be about things that the reader may never know. What’s your favorite pizza? What age did you have your first kiss? If you could picture yourself in five years, where would you be and what would you do?

Through this mental conversation, I gain the answers as to who they are. I learn what they like, how they talk, the people they love and how they fit into the picture. It’s a powerful process and mentally exhausting usually, but it whirlwinds into a giant document filled with these answers.

Most importantly, it lets me get to know them. In turn, when I write them, I can just write about the person I know - almost like they’re a friend. Doesn’t matter that they’re a villain, a hero, the next calamity, they’re a being and one that I got to know quite well.

I’ve found that it really hammers home the reality of these characters and has brought some wild backstories to life. :slight_smile:

Anyways, that’s my process, haha. Sorry for the wall of text!


Got that question earlier and I honestly have no idea. Some character pops up and starts talking to when I am driving. Some characters just appear on a blank paper and expect to be taken seriously. Most fade away after a scene or a story, but some stick around, growing more distinct until I stick them in a story that’s going somewhere. Some characters start out as other characters but change so much that in the end, they are new ones.

I don’t know anything about my character I haven’t needed in the story. Many times I have no idea what they look like, but I might know exactly what their body language is or how their laugh sounds. Age is irrelevant until it is not.

It’s hard to force characters when I need a certain type for a scene, often they feel very dry and uninteresting. I know that’s fine; eventually, something else will fall into place and I’ll know exactly how they work. Can’t force that spice, just work through it.

They’re real people to me, they come from my brain, but I let them guide me. Little nuggets of my subconscious I want to explore where they lead, rationality is overrated. Most characters have inspiration, but often I don’t know what until later. Or ever. Seeds planted by birds, gotta nurture what pops up and see what it turns out to be.