Creating Characters for Your Stories

Creating minor characters in short stories and novels is often a mix of intuition and expedient puzzle construction. The plot tells you what you need the person to do whether s/he’s a maid or a butler or a car salesman, your intuition tells you about the character’s demeanor, and applying our jigsaw puzzle skills leads you to the traits (and backup research) to make the character real within the scope of his/her role.

Obviously, a character with a recurring presence throughout the novel needs more substance than a bartender who doesn’t even have a line of dialogue. It’s important, though, not to box yourself in because you may need that character later–that is s/he may slowly get a larger role in a novel or its sequels and/or may need to become more than s/he appeared to be when the reader first met them.

For example, my character Pollyanna appeared more or less as a walk-on character in book 3 (Lena) of the Florida Folk Magic Series, was enjoyable to work with as a writer, and also was a hit with readers. So, she became the main character in book 4 (Fate’s Arrows). Each time she appeared, I added depth to the character making sure the new information about her didn’t conflict with what I’d said before.

Wikipedia photo

We learned over time that she was a marine nurse at MASH units in Korea and Okinawa. We learned that when marines took karate courses in Okinawa (where Shotokan karate was developed) Pollyanna tagged along and–to the surprise of the men–became quite good at it. I used legitimate Shotokan strikes in Fate’s Arrows and that meant watching a lot of video instruction about doing them correctly.

This is one example of taking a character and adding skills or traits that weren’t necessary when s/he first appeared. In Pollyanna’s case, she was always an enigma to those who knew her, an approach to life that would later fit with her CIA association. Had she been a conservationist, woodcraft skills that weren’t required in her first scene could have been added in subsequent stories because the stage would have been set for her to develop in that way. You could say the same for many avocations or careers, as long as you didn’t box yourself in when the character first walked into the story.

Or, if you plan everything, then you might have created that walk-on character one way or another, knowing that you were going to use him or her in multiple sequels. That’s too tedious for me, but a lot of writers like getting everything nailed down before they begin writing.

Learn more here.

Now, in my novel-in-progress, Pollyanna is again the main character and I am building her style and way of life by introducing the reader to the concepts behind Karate that would have been overkill in her first or second appearance. She has a Zen approach to life. That fits with Karate. So now I can add the concept of Bushido (a moral code) as well as the general precepts of Shotokan developed by Gichin Funakoshi that stress a unity of mind and body. That Pollyanna adheres to these approaches to life, not only explains why she does what she does, but makes her come across as a character of a lot of depth.

Had she been a conservationist, I might now be adding in such concepts as a forest as a unit rather than isolated trees and how that impacts the environment, forest management, and the careful use of fire. I probably would have followed the concepts and researchers behind Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory and made them (like Bushido in Karate) an important philosophy of the character.

Needless to say, every “walk-on character won’t end up becoming the protagonist in subsequent novels.  But it’s fun when this happens because, for the author, they are rather like a child who likes playing with blocks who ends up becoming an architect with, say, the viewpoint of (possibly) Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie Style and its influences from the natural world. Such influences might even become a part of the character’s developing persona.

When characters are involved, it’s easy for an author to feel like a parent.


My Vietnam War novel “At Sea” is free on Kindle through June 5. It is loosely based on my experiences aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. 

Writing is like living in a fixer-upper house

“You know those people who buy fixer-upper homes, move into them, and live there while they renovate them? That’s what a story is like. You move into the story, you occupy it like a house, and you live there until it’s completely done.” –Thrity Umrigar

In an earlier post called About Waiting for Inspiration, I noted that serious professional writers work every day rather than sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That post suggested things writers can do to make inspired story ideas more likely.

Likewise, there are things writers can do once they have a story idea that will make it more likely the plot will unfold. Better to let the plot and characters come to mind naturally rather that sitting down, staring at a blank screen, and waiting for something to happen.

I like author Thrity Umrigar’s fixer-upper house analogy. First, it paints a very accurate picture about what goes on during an author’s waking hours while s/he is actively working on a short story or novel. Second, it suggests one reason why authors often stare off in space or seem not to be listening while they’re around others. They’re physically in the room, but mentally they’re conversing with their characters or chasing bad guys through a bad section of town.

Unrigar adds that when you’re committed to a story, “That means you’re thinking about your story all the time, living with it, never letting it wander too far away from you. A story is like a newborn–you have to tend to it, feed it, be aware of it all the time.”

When you’re living in a house white renovating it, you’re on the scene 24/7. You not only notice what needs to be done, but think of new ideas that didn’t occur to you when you first walked in the front door. A story is like that. Authors don’t see every detail of every character, scene, description, and plot twist when they first think of an idea.

When you’re living in a fixer-upper house, it’s easier to see potential traffic flows, floor plan changes, and value-added features than it was while the house was something you might buy. When you see what your fictional characters see–or might see–it becomes more apparent whether they’re moving in the right direction or not, wearing the clothes that suit them, or adding to the prospective reader’s excitement by doing this or that or something else.

Seriously, when you’re committed to a story, it never goes away until you finish it–and maybe, not even then. Like the fixer-upper house that’s ready to sell, you have to resist the urge to tinker after it’s time to send your story or novel off to an agent, magazine, or publisher. It takes self-confidence to know when the story is truly finished and when the fixer-upper house is ready to list with a realtor.

Either way, living in the story and the fixer-upper house is a necessity.


Why do writers write what they write?

We’re told to write what we know. That doesn’t stop us from doing research and ending up knowing more. Perhaps what we know and what we want to learn about play into the list of things we care about.

I’m not talking about caring about mom and apple pie or caring about getting rid of war, poverty and prejudice, though those things are good to care about. What writers care about is often a mix of locations, themes, character types, story types and the related issues that attract their attention.

My earliest passions–other than having a slice of apple pie with a healthy slab of sharp cheddar cheese–were nature and psychic phenomena. Family vacations and Boy Scout camping trips introduced me to a lot of wild places and what it took to live in the woods. Books introduced me to intuition, transcendent experiences, improving one’s natural hunches and the kinds of things that might go bump in the night.

Perhaps this is why I write fantasy and magical realism with a strong sense of the natural world that surrounds my stories and characters.

A belief in unseen worlds and inner transformation turned me into the kind of person who detests conformity, authoritarian and/or patriarchal control of individuals, and brute-force lawless action whether it manifests in the KKK and Jim Crow, the Armenian genocide, Hitler or ISIS.

I grew up in Florida, a state that made its living and fame off of orange groves and tourist attractions. At the same time, the state was in the “top five” when it came to lynchings, Klan activity and corrupted government officials. Florida, to my mind, equals nature that has been compromised by development and a very ugly past that nobody likes to talk about.

I have a fondness for longleaf pines, blackwater rivers, Gulf Coast estuaries and beaches. I have an inherent dislike of the Klan because they were the devil I knew and feared as a child even though I am white.

All of these things led me to write my upcoming novella Conjure Woman’s Cat, a book about the natural world, folk magic, 1950s-era discrimination and the Klan.

The ever-popular question where do you get your ideas is one I detest because most people who ask it are doing so in an interview, or perhaps in an elevator, and expect a short answer such as “in the newspaper” or “from people watching” or “from my grandfather’s stories.”

The real answer is so much more complex that I don’t know how to put it into a 25-word answer that satisfies anybody. Ideas come from years of feeling strongly about one thing and another until somehow a story idea springs out of “nowhere” and I start writing.

This doesn’t add up to any recipe advice for people who want to write. Recipe advice tends to do more harm than good anyway. The real advice is to nurture oneself, follow one’s intuition and harvest all of that into a mix that accentuates one’s favorite (good or bad) areas of interest. And then, no matter what you believe, try not to preach, allowing the story to speak for itself.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the fantasy novels “The Seeker,” “The Sailor,” and “The Betrayed” and the paranormal short stories “Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Cora’s Crossing,” and “Emily’s Stories.”

Dark territory: when the novel is done, the muse stops talking

In Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, my protagonist David Ward is convinced that some of the people we meet on rainy city sidewalks and between the dry-as-dust shelves in ancient libraries began their lives as fictional characters. Whether they first strayed through a writer’s thoughts as a random notion, stalked him along the boundaries of his waking world in twilight dreams, or arrived at the very moment the pen first kissed the paper with their name, such individuals are called into life because an empty space must be filled.

David claims he wrote a novel about a woman who meets his protagonist at an old transfer house where the city’s streetcar lines come together, allowing people to transfer from one city car to another or from a south side local to a north side interurban. It’s impossible to know whether Ward dreamt up a character whose depth and outlook were the very same as the depth and outlook of the soul mate he was seeking or whether his muse was moonlighting as a matchmaker.

At a time when David was lost, the fictional character appeared in his life as a living, breathing woman, and while she was in the process of saving his life, he asked how she happened to meet him by happenstance on a warm, Indian summer afternoon. She said he called her when he wrote what he wrote about the transfer house. Clearly, he needed her too much for her to live out her existence on a printed page. She is, in David’s mind, a very real woman who is filling a very real empty space.

He’s fair certain the gods tampered with the workings of the temporal world on the day when she had her first independent thought. He’s convinced of her reality, and I believe him.

As an author of fantasy novels, I can’t claim what my characters claim. I will not try to convince you that David Ward stepped out of Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, and became real, much less that a character in one of my character’s stories became real. Speculation along such lines leads to lunacy or into the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics that suggests that things that can happen, do happen.

Sarabande has entered dark territory

My protagonist in Sarabande was, for the many months I was actively at work on the novel, a very strong presence in my thoughts. She had a story to tell. Like a living and breathing person, it took her awhile to trust me enough to share the most personal events and feelings that had, for so many years, lurked powerfully in her thoughts. Figuratively speaking, I followed her on her journey from Montana to Illinois and back as a silent scribe. I could not intervene because my powers as an author do not allow me to tamper with the workings of my stories.

Now, the novel has been written and published and I feel rather lost because, fictional though she is, Sarabande’s voice—as interpreted by my muse—has been a voice constantly speaking. She needed me to hear her and disseminate her story to those who love fantasy worlds that hover close enough to our world that they rattle the windows as well as our thoughts while we’re reading a story.

When Sarabande was published, Sarabande stopped talking. There was nothing else for her to say. My muse became quiet as well. At the end of the novel, Sarabande understood many things. I understood them, too. Then she stepped into a well-lighted mountain cabin with two friends and closed the door. They have much to discuss, but I am no longer hearing Sarabande’s voice. I have no idea what is being said and done on the other side of that door. In the railroad business, “dark territory” refers to sections of the line where there’s no communication between a train and the outside world. That’s an apt description for Sarabande’s current whereabouts.

Many authors feel a bit lost when the finish writing a short story or a novel. The intense focus on the story for many months or many years is rather hard to replace with the chores of a normal day. The missing story-in-progress leaves an empty space. I can understand why a reader or a writer might speculate about his characters finding the wherewithal to transition from the world of fantasy into the world of reality as we currently understand it.

What’s Next?

Yet, Sarabande ended at a natural place. Tempting as it may be to write past that ending, I think my words would not ring true.
A friend of mine asked, “What next?” I really don’t know. Perhaps I’ll write about stone masons in 16th century France or mountain climbers on the summit of Mt. Everest. Perhaps Sarabande will ask my muse to ask me to write another story about her life in the universe next door. She’s independent of me now and, in that regard, just as real in my memory as the people I’ve met on rainy city sidewalks and between the dry-as-dust shelves in ancient libraries. I can no longer tell you what she’s thinking.

I don’t know what’s next. No doubt, there are a lot of probable fictional characters out there with stories to tell. Hopefully, there are dreamers amongst them who need a scribe who loves mixing fantasy and reality in the same glass. When one of them is ready to talk, my muse knows my phone number and we can talk about what’s supposed to follow the words “once upon a time.”

Coming September 6

Author Smoky Trudeau Zeidel (On the Choptank Shores – A Love Story) will be here with a guest post offering a bit of advice for unpublished authors called “Knock it Off.”


$4.99 on Kindle