How to Create Characters Before They Live on the Page

by | Feb 13, 2016

I despise other people’s hands in my mouth.

Yet I’ve permitted countless fingers to pry open my jaws over the years. I’ve even allowed them to wield sharp objects beside my tongue. This oral horror continues as mirrors, strings and chemicals appear shortly thereafter.

What’s crazy is that during these approved intrusions, I’m supposed to help carry a conversation. The person grinding utensils against my teeth often asks, “How are you doing?” That’s the moment my shoulders constrict and my mind retreats to its safe place.

Of course, I’m describing a typical session with my dentist. I missed my last appointment. They’ve called three times to reschedule but I’m in no rush to gargle my own blood again.


I hate going to the dentist, and this contempt has prompted me to appoint every dentist with a criminal mind.

But can you really blame me? Haven’t you ever laid there flat on your back, baked under their bright lights, and wondered what drove that masked mortal to pursue a career in professional mouth probing?

All it takes is a quick online search to solidify their disturbing intentions, too. These quotes were gathered from forums after googling, “Why did you become a dentist?”

  • “I like carving, sculpting, etc.”
  • “I want to save the world one tooth at a time.”
  • “I enjoy tinkering with things.”
  • “Dentistry is like arts and crafts for adults.”
  • “Money money money money”

If those words don’t read like the motives of a villain, I don’t know what does.


Whether you’re a writer, editor or storyteller of any kind, we’re all constantly using our imaginations to position people as heroes, villains and more. This activity can help us develop entertaining characters on the page, but it also flexes our creative muscles (along with transforming the bland everyday into something enjoyable).

So instead of looking at my own issues with teeth cleaning, I opt to create monsters with fang fetishes. Yep, I basically edit the story of my life and rewrite it to read like fiction.

For instance, I imagine the smiling cashier at my local grocery store licking the Fuji Apples when no one’s looking. I envision my waiter with the nose ring from last night getting off work and treating their spouse to laser tag using my credit card number. I believe that the first-degree acquaintance in Costco was thankful I hid behind a palette of Kleenex to avoid a stop and chat convo.

It’s amazing what’s happening all around when you create beyond the obvious.

I recommend everyone gives this approach a shot. Again, it doesn’t matter if you’re a storyteller or reader because we’re all equipped with powerful imaginations.


Here’s just a few sample scenarios and exercises to jumpstart your own fictive universe:

  1. Next time you’re pumping gas: Watch the person closest to you. Ask yourself where they’re coming from? Is Marvin from Pulp Fiction in the trunk? Where are they going? Does the body farm await their arrival?
  2. Next time your dentist patrols your mouthpiece: Ask yourself what it is they love so much about saliva? Or imagine asking them to lay down so you can play doctor inside their mouth. Or visualize an empowering conversation that ends with you being asked to find a new orthodontist.
  3. Next time your boss says something twisted: Look inside your boss’s mind and recognize he/she is daring you to quit. Then picture how you could use your very particular set of skills to better your life and conquer your bad boss a la Taken style. Hey, sometimes tangent thoughts can become a tangible life…

The point is to use your fictive mind to thrive in the real world. This mental workout should help your writing if you’re a storyteller. Better yet, it should help everyone balance the ordinary with the bizarre and breed monsters among men.

Going back to monsters, I’ve got a feeling my dentist thinks I’m one. You see, I listen to my iPhone during my teeth cleanings. It’s a great defense against conversation, keeps me caught up on podcasts, and drowns out any potential grinding octaves.

It’s just that I’ve never seen anyone else using headphones. I’m sure there are others, but I’m worried, because I just started imagining what happened to them…