Write On! Finding Characters
by author Vivian Zabel, Stolen

A story or novel must have characters, but where does a writer find unique characters who can bring writing to life?

Characters are everywhere!

Recently I read a discussion about the difficulty in finding and developing characters in writing. I had to laugh because I nearly fall over characters begging to be included in stories and books, even if they don’t realize it.

After spending nearly a month in a facility that includes rehab, which I needed after surgery, I have a list of characters that can be used in various ways. All I had to do was jot down some details to use later.

This facility as four halls and cares for residents who need skilled nursing, rehab, and special care, as well as those who live there permanently, because they can’t live on their own. The list includes those like me who are here for rehabilitation due to injury, surgery, or stroke to those who can’t remember who they are or where they are. Allow me to share some “characters” that may well appear in one of my writings some day.

An example of courage and determination is a man I’ll call BJ. The bear of a man, recovering from a stroke, has lived in the facility for more than three months. When I first arrived, he had made little to no visible progress in being able to talk or use correct words. His eyes, under bushy gray brows, appeared lost and confused. In therapy, he struggled to find words that he knew he should know. No matter how discouraged he may be, he kept trying and trying and trying. His delight, when shown a pen, at being able to say “Pen” caused a smile to crease his face. Lifting a foot an inch off the floor became a major achievement.

Humor can be found, too. One resident has Alzheimer’s. A force to be reckoned with, 95-year-old “Granny” covered more ground faster with her walker than most nimble young people can running. However, she pulled some frustrating, yet so funny, stunts. One day, she kept walking off without her walker and had to be reminded to get it. I’d witnessed two incidents earlier in the day, and as I returned to my room after a walk, “Granny” came out of her room without her walker.

I asked, “Where’s your walker?”

“I don’t know” was the response.

“Go back in your room and get your walker.”

She turned around and entered the room, muttering all the time. In seconds she was back in the hall with her walker. She walked up to me and said, “She told me to go get my walker. She made me go back in my room to get my walker.” I struggled to keep from laughing as she fast-walked away from me. She hadn’t remembered I was the one who told her.

A nurse asked if they could hire me, but I refused. No way could I survive keeping up with “Granny.”

My advice for finding characters is to look around. Notice the people you see and hear. Keep notes. Then, when the occasion arises, insert them in your writings. A very vocal, destructive youth baseball coach ended up in one of my books. Of course he was one of the “bad” guys.

Look, watch, listen for characters you can use in your writing.

What characters have you encountered lately? Please comment below.

Vivian Zabel has won several awards with her writing, including first place with her mystery/suspense Midnight Hours, and has written in the adult, young adult, and children’s genres. Her latest novel Stolen, about a women who is battered and torn when her children are abducted, was just released. She taught English and writing for nearly 30 years, and edited newspapers, yearbooks, and literary magazines sporadically for 45. Zabel’s publishing company—4RV Publishing has released nearly 30 books in the last two years. For more on Zabel, read the Write On! Q&A.


Comments are closed.

  1. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    Thanks, Debra.

    Of course, the characters for Stolen came fully developed, just needed some tweaking, mainly to protect the guilty from prosecution.

    Stolen is now on sale through http://4rvpublishingllc.com/Novels.html, 10% off at checkout.

  2. Carolyn Howard-Johnson 11 years ago

    It’s been a grand tour, Vivian. And trust our Debra for bringing up the rear in such professional style!

    Sending you both holiday wishes and love.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Tweeting writers’ tips and mini #moviereviews at http://www.twitter.com/frugalbookpromo

  3. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    Thanks, Carolyn. I didn’t realize or forgot she was using this article written by me. It definitely fits with writing.

  4. Martha Ramirez 11 years ago

    Great post, Vivian!

  5. Debra Eckerling 11 years ago

    Happy Holidays, everyone!

    I am a firm believer that “characters are everywhere.” Thanks, Vivian, for a great article!

  6. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    Hi, Martha. I’m glad you stopped by.

    Thank you, Debra, for hosting me today.

  7. vehoae 11 years ago

    I remember some of those characters, Vivian. [smiling] Lots of book material there, for sure! Given where I worked for 29 years, there probably is a wealth of characters that could nicely shape up a political fiction book, don’t you think, Vivian? Maybe I should tell you about some of them and you could do a political-based novel. [grinning]

  8. Katie Hines 11 years ago

    Sometimes I struggle with characters, too, and finding their voice instead of my own.

    Vivian, it sounds like you’ve got the secret down pat. Hope this translates into sales for you.

  9. Ginger Pixels 11 years ago

    Sounds like fun… I hope you keep your notes in a safe place. People are just so interesting. We have to spend a lot of time in Dr. waiting rooms and I have found some wonderful characters that I sketch and save. If I forget my sketchbook or the people are too close I try to remember the details until I get back to the studio to get them on paper. I like trying to decide what they could become as a character.

    Your characters are bound to be very interesting because you actually had a chance to interact with them.

    All the best with your new book, Stolen!

  10. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    Yes, vehoae, you could definitely have characters for a political fiction book. Maybe we could collaborate?
    Katie, I’ve always been blessed/cursed with a vivid imagination. I have an acting gene, too, and taught drama for many,many years. Maybe those two traits helped me find characters’ voices easier. Anyway, they pop into my head as distinct personalities.
    I have had people voice surprise that I can write so differently depending on the project I’m writing.

  11. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    Thanks for leaving a comment, Ginger. I’m always losing notes and ideas and whatevers. I need a list to tell me where to find my other lists and notes. Ish.

  12. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    Thank you, again, Debra, for hosting me today.

    Tomorrow will be the last stop on the tour: http://margaretfieland.com/blog1/

  13. Nita Beshear 11 years ago

    Vivian, what a great article. Good idea Debra, to use her advice on finding characters, she has some interesting ones in STOLEN. Looks like you’re having a great “tour” Vivian, congratulations.


  14. Karen Cioffi 11 years ago

    Wonderful article. I know a lot of what I’ve read tells authors to keep a notebook on hand at all times to note tidbits of conversations, actions, etc. of those around us.

  15. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    Hi, Nita and Karen. I’m glad you came by, and I’m glad you hosted me, too.

    I really don’t understand the problem with finding believable characters. As I said above in the article, I nearly trip over them all the time. However, I began studying people many, many, many, many years ago.

  16. Cheryl 11 years ago

    Great article, Vivian. I have lots of characters, just limited time to listen to their stories. I’m working on that problem, though, so hopefully things will change soon.

    Wishing you the best on your tour.

  17. Enid Wilson 11 years ago

    Great suggestion, Vivien. I met an annoying lawyer lately. He would be good for my next story!

    Fire and Cross

  18. Beverly 11 years ago

    Yes, characters are all around us, if we just look. One of my characters whispered in my ear. Others have come to mind from newspaper articles or seeing someone who looks interesting. So many ways characters appear.

    Good luck with the rest of your tour.

  19. Jackie King 11 years ago

    Loved the story about Granny. I agree that characters are everywhere–many just in the author’s head–imagine how scary that must be for the poor dears.

  20. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    I’m sorry. I didn’t realize any other comments had been left since this blog doesn’t have the option to have notification of new posts. Debra emailed that more had come in, so here I am.

    Thanks, Cheryl, Enid, Beverly, and Jackie for visiting. Finding characters is fun, interesting, and sometimes, yes, scary, but as authors, that’s what we do. Uh, we use the voices in our heads to populate our books.

  21. Susanne Drazic 11 years ago

    What a great article about finding characters. They definitely are all around us. Thanks for sharing a couple of your wonderful characters, Vivian.

  22. Kay Dee 11 years ago

    Hi Vivian,
    Congratulations on your release. I appreciated the article on characters – thank you for sharing your expertise.

  23. Brenda Kezar 11 years ago

    Sometimes we go to a casino not too far from our home for fun, and I love to people watch there. So many different kinds of people: younger folks, dressed up in their finest for a “big night out,” farmers kicking up their heels after a hard day in the field, hardcore casino-going housewives, tribal members; it’s an excellent place to pick up character & story ideas.

    But one of the best (and strangest) places to pick up character ideas and stories is the ladies room! I always carry a small memo pad in my back pocket now. Last time, I heard two girls (one with a very distinct manner of speaking that I’m definitely going to use for one of my characters) discussing the bad luck of their friend: she found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend left her, she lost her job, and on the way home she skidded on the ice and wrecked her car. I feel terrible for the girl, but it makes great story fodder.

  24. Vivian Zabel 11 years ago

    I’m glad to share what I know about writing. Guess I’ll always be a teacher at heart.

    Brenda, what excellent material for a plot and for characters.


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