How I Conceptualize Characters

Today I decided to share one of my dirty little secrets with all of you. It’s how I come up with the lead roles for my stories (at least for the long ones that are turning into novels and novel series). It’s not some big long complicated process for me. I don’t know how long it usually takes authors to get a good idea of who their main characters are, but for me it’s pretty quick. And as weird as it may sound, it doesn’t start with writing at all.

I’m an artist at heart. Yes, I love writing, and I will always write even if it’s just for myself, but my urge to create is shared with my visual art. Drawing, painting, doodling, whatever. So for me, the easiest way to get to known my characters is to draw them. For me it’s simple. I put a blank piece of paper on the table in front of me and stare at it until it magically becomes a masterpiece. Or not. We all know it doesn’t really happen that way. Sometimes that masterpiece take 20 or more hours to make happen, complete with cursing, growling, head scratching, broken pencils, paint everywhere (and I do mean everywhere), and a whole lot of frustration. When it’s done, I can sit back and take a good look at the person who will take center stage in my story, even if they aren’t the main focus.

For me, I feel like I know my characters better when I can see them in front of me rather than through the descriptions of the narrative. Sure, maybe you can’t tell that the character is deathly afraid of snakes just by looking at their picture, but if I’ve done my job right, I can tell what kind of person they are. That one up there in the banner, that’s Julian. You’ll see a lot of him in this blog because he is the main focus of one of the books I’m working on, as well as a main supporting character in the other one. I’ve drawn him countless times over the years, and I knew his personality perfectly by the time it came to writing him. I knew how he would react to certain situations, I knew what he likes and dislikes, and now when I write him, I can picture perfectly in my head what the scene looks like.

This is what the first sketch of him looks like. Well, the first one that’s done more realistically than the other random anime doodles of him.

Julian Character Sketch

Julian Character Sketch

Some of you may be saying “well if you’re good at writing, your readers should be able to picture the scene perfectly when they read it, anyway.” Well I shake my head at you. This is my preference, dammit, and not a set in stone way of doing it! Maybe it’s because I grew up reading comic books just as often as I read novels, but it’s probably just because I’ve been drawing character sketches since I was ten years old and that’s just something I enjoy doing. Either way, this is how most of my conceptualizing happens.

BUT… once I’m done drawing a new person, angel, demon, cat, whatever, I still sit down and write up a quick note sheet with the basics. Age, full name if necessary, eye colour, hair colour, height, body type and build, hobbies, special abilities, species, it all gets jotted down on a sheet of paper in one of my growing number of notebooks so that it’s on hand whenever I need it.

Sometimes I’ll write a scene or two with that character to feel them out and decide if there is anything I need to change about them before moving forward, but maybe that’s overkill. I just like to know my characters inside and out so that I’m not stuck wondering things like whether they would roll their eyes at someone’s joke or roll around on the floor laughing or maybe even burst into a fit of rage at how preposterous the punchline is and then proceed to annihilate the entire room full of people with their magic fairy dust that melts the flesh from your bones. Okay, maybe not that, but do you see where I’m going with this?

The point is, how I figure my people out is probably totally different from how you do it. Not to say you shouldn’t try it my way, because it is definitely fun (at least when it works out the way you want it), but you should do it your way. I find my way easiest for me, but I’m sure a lot of other people would think I’m insane for doing it the way I do – especially if you aren’t the artsy type.

For me, I like to see the scene drawn out in front of me if I have the option. And it works out well if I need a few days away from writing, because I can still be focused on my story, but in a completely different way than if I was to force myself to write when I’m not motivated to do so. Trust me, there are plenty of days when drawing is definitely the better option for me between the two.

How do you plan out your characters? Do you go into detail about their past, or do you stick to the basics and let the character reveal themselves as the story progresses so that you don’t even know what’s going to happen? Feel free to let me know in the comments, I love hearing how other authors go about planning their work. Also, just to see how well I did my job (probably not well at all, but whatever), what type of impression do you get from that character sketch above? What kind of person do you think he is?

(If you’re interested in seeing the other art I do, you can find some on my art blog.)

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3 thoughts on “How I Conceptualize Characters

  1. Hanna Sideshow Freak says:

    First of all just wanna say I love you! I thought I was the only one being “overly attached” to my characters. Other “creative” people I talked through past the years never seem to take notice of their characters differences, rather than just making them handsome for the audience or whatever, and then after a week they get sick of them. Heck, I’ve even cried over characters when I had to kill them, it’s sad, I know but I do that. I have a theory that in order to make a long graphic novel or novel is being in love with all your characters, men women whatever, you have to love them (even if they’re ugly).
    As for me, some characters take years to develope, and some characters just pop out perfect. The stories I make are basic at the beginning, but evolve as I get into it and grow overtime. Their past often comes afterwards for me, since I start off with how they act and look today, then I start figuring … hmm, why do they act and look like this today? And then I go backwards. I have just finished a 666 pages long (yeah I know, couldn’t help it) graphic novel with two main characters of which the main character is (as a character) six years old and the other one is only three years old, but still I love the three years old character more, so for me it’s not the time I’ve had them that makes them meaningful to me, I even have characters as old as 19 years that I don’t care about.
    And as for your drawings, they are beautiful and sensitive! I couldn’t ever draw my characters realistic as that. I looked at the header aswell and I could very well imagine Julian being sort of reserved and a but mystic with a deep story behind him, maybe some tragic event in the past, the snake/cat eyes gives a strong animalistic feature to which many are drawn to, even I! It would absolutely be interesting seeing more of him. Do you know exactly how old he is? I bet you had him lots and lots of years.
    Hope my comment will not be too annoying to read, haha!

    Have a great day/evening
    Hanna

    • kimberleymc says:

      Ah, your comment literally just made my day! I’m so happy I’m not the only one who gets so attached to characters. Julian happens to be one of the characters I’ve been drawing and writing the longest. The only one I’ve been “working with” for longer is actually his younger “brother” Jamie. I’ve been writing Julian for 12 years already, and I highly doubt I’ll ever stop writing him because in the last year I’ve been going into his past and learning way more about him than knew before. So I agree completely with everything you said, I always start with the basics and then work backward and forward to learn more about them. I know a lot about Julian so far, but still not as much as I’d like. He’s definitely the most complex character I write, haha.
      Thanks for the awesome comment, seriously, it really did make my rainy day better!

      Cheers!
      Kimberley

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