Writing Exercise: Developing Rounded Characters

Have you ever written a character who is a vaguely average person, or a resemblance of you? Over the years I’ve edged away from that pitfall, but it still calls to me from afar: go for what’s safe and easy! But that leads to boring stories. One way to practice creating round, unique characters is to draw inspiration from people who aren’t you, your friends, or your family.

Look to strangers for inspiration. More specifically, look into photographers’ books of portraits. The beautiful book by Steve McCurry has hundreds of pictures. Hundreds of people. All unique and with a story to tell. 

So here’s my advice:

  • Obtain a portrait book, or flip through old National Geographic magazines at random. 
  • Pick three people. They don’t need to have similar global locations, nationalities, personalities, or anything. Some can be homely, and some bizarrely expressive. Your pick.
  • Use visual clues for insight into this person’s character. Clothes, jewelry, tattoos, religious symbols, etc. will help you guess at their backstory. Many people carry their identities on their sleeves. They want to be known. 
  • Set them in room together, throw in some conflict, and see what they do. Are they waiting at an airport, watching their plane crash on the runway? Did they get into a fight during an AA meeting? It’s up to you!

After you’ve written out the scene, you might want to pursue this story even further. But if you don’t, please don’t throw it away. Set it aside, and come back after a few months. Maybe the story will be ripe for the picking, and you’ll be ready to pursue it to the end. 

My opening question still stands: Have you ever written a character who is a vaguely average person, or a resemblance of you? How do you avoid this pitfall?