It Builds Character

22 02 2012

By Julia Indigo/@juliaindigo

My initial inspiration for writing was character-based. I invented a man, gave him a name, a profession, and built his character from there. I thought you might be interested in how I did it… and, of course, there are gaping holes in my process that you might be interested in pointing out to me in the comments. How could it be otherwise? I’m a newly-minted writer. I don’t know much. I’m going on instinct.

Oddly enough, for a musician, I am a very visually-oriented person. The first thing I determine about a character is his appearance. What kind of physical impression does he make? How tall? What kind of physique? Is he athletic and muscular, or friendly and pudgy?


Superficial things like eye/hair color and hair style. How does he walk? Does she stride, or mince? Does she live in her head most of the time, or is this someone who is completely at home in her body? Yoga, or softball, or websurfing? Or regular surfing? Running? Couch potato? Golfer?

Then style of dress. Does she dress up all the time, fashion forward? Is this someone who pays attention to grooming, or has he given up on all that?


Canelli is (obviously) of Italian heritage, and wealthy. Of course he wears Italian leather shoes! How could he not?

And what does it feel like to be in her presence? Does he dominate a room? Or is she a wallflower? What kind of conversationalist? Listener? Does he give you his entire attention, or is this person constantly scanning the room, in case there’s someone else they’d rather be seen with/ needs to talk to/ wants to seduce/ is dying to meet?

Is the individual an optimist or a pessimist? Do they kvetch? Constantly? Frequently? Rarely? Never? A joiner, or a loner? A thinker? A feeler? A sensualist? A judgmental S.O.B. or an airy-fairy ‘all is forgiven’ type? Oooh. I could see this turning into one of those online personality sorter questionnaires! There’s a thought! Go take the MBTI/enneagram tests AS THE CHARACTER!

What is his family history? I found this to be indispensable! In the case of Steven Canelli, he’s the youngest of seven, the only boy. The Canellis are a very wealthy Italian-American family. His father established their highly-successful family-owned ethnic foods company. They are Catholic, and live in Lake Forest, an upper-crust community north of Chicago, IL.


I don’t know about you, but when the above came to me, I knew bucketloads about this guy. Adding in that he is the product of his mother’s love affair, and as such his very existence is a constant (unpleasant) reminder to his (also unpleasant) ‘father’ that he’s a cuckold… well, you have the recipe for difficulties later in Steven’s life: addictions, problems with women, overachievement/workaholism, etc… and the story flows from these difficulties.


Then there’s history. I already know where he grew up. If he went to college, where did he go? What was his major? What did he like to do for fun back then? What is his work history? What is his relationship history? Did he break someone’ heart? Was his heart broken? And… How has that history molded him into the man he is today?


One method I use to construct temperament is to visualize/fantasize being the character. What does it feel like to be in his body? What is her point of view? This works well when I’m stuck, particularly when writing dialogue. I imagine myself as one of the characters, and physically move the way they might, if they were responding to what someone said. Do his eyes harden in response to someone’s comment, or do they soften? Does he glance away? Does she take a deliberate breath, or sigh, or pretend to cough? Is he cocksure, smirking and coming on to her? Does she meet his eyes, then roll hers dismissively?


And finally, what is the character’s reaction to the shit that I sling at them? As Chuck Wendig says, ‘Torture your characters! Throw them against the wall! Kill their kittens/puppies! etc…’ That isn’t a direct quote from Chuck, but you get the idea. Yes, I love Steven Canelli… but the dude’s got issues! The whole point is whether or not he can overcome them, and what craziness it takes to eventually get his attention. Hint: it isn’t called ‘hitting bottom’ for nothing! Oh wait! That sounds kinky, and I didn’t mean it that way! Let’s just say that the guy has a lot to lose, and yes, he loses it.

How do imagine your characters? Do you base them on people that you know? Do you interview them, or write their histories (as I have learned to do)? Let me know in the comments. And thank you for reading!



7 responses

23 02 2012

Interesting. I have a similar process, but I tend to go overboard in designing all of my characters this way, so I gave up taking the emotion and psyche tests. My main litmus test now is 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt. It took a while for the light bulb to kick on, but now that I understand her way of using the archetypes this way, this is one of my main go-to books. One of many on my Kindle shelf now.

23 02 2012
Matthew Wright

Hi – thanks for the insight into your creative process. I must confess I always have trouble envisaging the physical look of my characters, but I think you’re right – pinning the look down can maybe give some great insights into the personality.

On another note, I’m pleased to be able to extend the ‘Versatile Blogger’ award to you. I received it the other day for the third time. One of the conditions is to pass it on to the deserving. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog enormously – so thank you. The details of the aware are posted back on my blog

And all strength to your writing arm!

Matthew Wright

4 03 2012
Julia Indigo

Oh Matthew, thank you!
I’ll pass it on soon!

24 02 2012
Morgan Dragonwillow

When I think of my characters I often wonder what their Shamanic Astrology would be and what element; are they more solid like earth, or intellectual like air, are they overly emotional like water, or passionate like fire. Maybe a mix? I love playing with characters as I build them but I try not to over think it too much, just get a flavor for them and then I ask them who they are.

Loved reading all about your character and how you built around him. It was wonderful going on that journey with you. At least it felt like a journey. Thank you.


4 03 2012
Julia Indigo

I completely forgot to mention Astrology. Yeah, that’s thrown into the mix. I think about main characters’ Sunsigns. In the case of Steven, I even gave him a birthdate.. though I haven’t looked at the chart for that date. I think I’ll do that now. Holy cow. Sun, Venus Merc, Neptune conjunction in Scorpio, with moon in Cancer. North Node in Leo! So his karma is pulling him away from all the Scorpio (since the South Node is there).

Yeah, I could go on and on with this, too.

Steven Canelli – Natal Chart
Mon 00°Cn09’53”
Sun 21°Sc53’24”
Mer 15°Sc40
Ven 18°Sc48 R
Mar 15°Le45
Jup 03°Pi16
Sat 05°Aq50
Ura 04°Vi59
Nep 13°Sc33
Plu 11°Vi55
Chi 06°Pi09 R
Nod 02°Le15 R

Cardinal: Mon Total Points: 1
Fixed: Sun Mer Ven Mar Sat Nep Nod Total Points: 7
Mutable: Jup Ura Plu Chi Total Points: 4

Fire: Mars Total Points: 1
Earth: Ura Plu Total Points: 2
Air: Sat Total Points: 1
Water: Mon Sun Mer Ven Jup Nep Chi Total Points: 7

2 03 2012

You make such a great point! It would help me to think about who would star in the movie adaptation of my book!
Great point!

4 03 2012
Julia Indigo

Good idea! I didn’t originally build this man’s physicality on a particular extant human being, but when I saw a pic of Patrick Dempsey, I thought – “There’s Steven!” I think I mentioned that in a previous post.
I can’t imagine writing about a character when I don’t know how they look, how they move. But that’s just me!

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