Character Magpies by JR Hughes | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character

JR Hughes

Characters. Individuals with distinctive mental and moral qualities. An idiosyncratic look and feel. But how do you get inspiration for them?

My husband, a graphic designer, was told in design school that to be successful he had to be a ‘visual magpie’. Creating characters is much the same. You have to steal. Here’s a few places to embezzle from.

Character templates – those questionnaires asking, ‘What do they love to do?’ ‘What is their principle drive?’ – can be a too staid starting point. I’d prefer to go to court than fill one out. And that’s a suggestion: visit a court and listen to a trial from the public gallery. You’ll witness all sorts of inspiring and not-so-inspiring temperaments, mannerisms and conflicts. Check out for sittings.

Then look to yourself. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “‘Look within your own heart at the different facets of your own personality. You may find a con man, an orphan, a nurse, a king, a hooker, a preacher, a loser, a child, a crone. Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thinks, talks, survives.”

And if you’ve already done that? George Bernard Shaw said, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance”. Look for quirks and eccentricities among your friends and family. Borrow, then disguise.

Next, to strangers. Dialog reveals character, and thankfully conversation surrounds us and is free for the taking. Maeve Binchy was a great one for earwigging conversations on the bus and in restaurants. She even learnt to lip read. Keep a pen and paper with you at all times.

Even while sitting on your couch there are sources you can pilfer from. Pay attention to the voices, gestures and mannerisms that come across in interviews, chat shows and documentaries.

For instance, in a documentary in 2010, David Hockney said that being overly interested in health is unhealthy. What a great belief to give a character! He spoke about the day he sat in a park and there were black rabbits on the grass. And then magpies came down. He recalled the black, and the black and the white, on the lawn.

‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘I was smoking. I had sat on the bench to smoke – and these three great women jogged past and one does this to me,’ – he waggles his finger to demonstrate the scolding she gave him – ‘As if smoking is not healthy. But what is healthy? There they are running past obsessed with their bodies and oblivious to these rabbits, these birds, this black and white – well, I don’t think that’s healthy either. What’s a little smoke? Without smoke the world is duller. Their jogging, their idea of health – that’s just dull, dreary, and there’s too much dreary. There is nothing dreary about a little smoke.’

You immediately have characters, conflict, gestures. That’s all you need to start, a seed of character, and in character is the seed of plot. You don’t need to have a character template complete. Just begin with one thing, and then, as Peter Carey says, “Keep on keeping on.” (‘True stories told live’) provides some 500 true stories via video and audio, told by the people the events happened to. Some personalities pop-up, including Malcolm Gladwell and Salman Rushdie (Writer’s Block, “Unable to finish his novel, a man travels to war-torn Central America to try to shake things up and escape the safety of the writerly life.”). But the highlights are stories told by regular people. A female spy in Chinatown dresses as a homeless person to track down criminals selling fake Rolex watches. A pickpocket has to sneak all the wallets he has stolen back into their owners’ handbags and pockets on a bus to avoid imminent arrest. A hitchhiker is picked up by and escapes from a (later captured) serial-killer. A lesbian alcoholic is reunited with her high school crush. You’ll find a myriad of distinct voices, accents, turns of phrase and real-life plot twists. is similar though more academic. It offers 1700 videos of people talking about their novel scientific and creative findings, careers and, in some cases, complete life resets. A film director loses everything in a fire. A brain researcher studies her own massive stroke. A cyber security researcher reveals the shadowy workings behind cyber warfare. (It’s also useful for researching the latest science, technology and creative developments.)

Smaller websites are equally valuable. has eleven short, true films about day-to-day people with captivating stories. A successful piano tuner chooses to be homeless, a young woman succumbs to the pressures of urban gang and gun culture, a professional footballer is devastated when injury ends his career.

Once you have a few ideas, create composites: ‘Your Uncle Edgar, but with the nervous tics and odd smell of this guy you observed for ten minutes in line at the post office.’ (Anne Lamott, again).

Character is illogical and there is no right or wrong to it – you cannot get it wrong. If you’re stuck, you’re trying too hard. Character is natural and all around us. From self, to family and friends, to strangers. Be magpies.

During his final interview on UK television, John Le Carré said “The secret world as far as I’m concerned is the mirror image of the big world, and I can very easily fish anyone I meet in society, replace them, in my own secret world, and make them function.”

So whenever you leave your desk remember you’ve not abandoned your writing, you’ve simply gone fishing.

(c) JR Hughes

About the author

JR Hughes was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1973 to an artist mother and scientist father. She has a BSc in Natural Sciences and in a former life worked in communications, business and management. Like many women she seems to have permanently cold fingers and toes so in 2013 left Ireland for the warmer shores of Ibiza, then India, where she can write without getting chilly. She now lives in Goa in a hut with one socket, two light bulbs, three cats and her graphic-designer husband. She is currently seeking a publishing deal for her first three novels.

For more see

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books