I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this, but when I need to develop a new character I start with the ears. Not their ears, my ears.
There are few forms of artistic expression more compact than song writing. If you’ve ever pulled the lyrics up to a favorite story-driven track it’s surprisingly sparse, yet the richness created in so few words is unmatched, at least in my experience. Unlike something static like a painting, songs take you on a journey. Even cheap thrills like “Jenny, what’s your number?” (Tommy Tutone – 867-5309/Jenny) are a fine starting point.
Songs distill characters down into their essence. The character that forms in the listener’s head is a collaborative effort with the songwriter. Your “Jenny” isn’t my “Jenny” yet we both read that name and number on the bathroom stall. But Jenny isn’t the character I would create based on this song. What sort of person would call a number they read on the wall? Why are they lonely? What sort of bathroom was it? I could write an entire backstory for a heartbroken long haul truck driver with his last dime in his pocket. Jenny, the sharpie on the wall, is the only person who’s offered a connection. Why not call for a good time?
Admittedly, it’s a weak start. But I’m not talking about plot here. For plot, I think you just need to live life and soak it all in.
Say you need to write a character who is a pirate. You could watch a ton of movies but then you might get a fully formed interpretation. You might accidentally write Johnny Depp into your book, instead of coming up with your own Captain Jack Sparrow. You want to create your own unique character but you need inspiration.
I think it’s easier to illustrate this concept with another track about “Jenny” that I used to create a pirate for my upcoming novel.
“Whisky in the Jar” is a traditional Irish ballad from the mid-17th century that has been played by countless bands. The Gaelic Storm version is my favorite. It’s about a rogue who robs an official but is betrayed by his lady, who sabotages his weapons and gives him up. They play a pretty traditional version, but it distills those human traits down to a high potency. There’s a few great characters in here, and using this event as a backstory ported over to whatever age you’re writing about can inspire a character without being too derivative.
In the Metallica version, the rogue becomes the hero. Jenny becomes Molly, and although she betrays him, she also loves him. Instead of having his gun sabotaged with water by his girlfriend, when Captain Farrel comes to arrest him the rogue leaps up and “jumps up with his pistols and shot him with both barrels” Just a small tweak like that and you have completely different characters. The hero still gets arrested, this time for murder, and the song returns to its classic roots.
So my advice is this: next time you are trying to come up with a character, find a few songs that make you feel the way you want that character to feel. Listen to a few covers if they are available. Most of my characters are mashups of a few different songs, genre isn’t important. Borrow from songwriters, get into that headspace, then use the collaborative creation in your own work. Loop it over and over when you’re trying to write their scene or in their voice.
And finally– Stand and deliver, or the devil he may take you.