A Giant Pile of Character Ideas to Jump-Start Your Brain
Character ideas have a way of coming in hot until you actually need them.
You’re in line at the grocery store and your mind is buzzing with a fully formed backstory for the guy who’s buying five tubes of toothpaste and a sympathy card. Then you go home and try to write about the character you’ve been thinking about for three weeks and…
What do they want out of life? What’s their job? What makes them interesting?
Suddenly, your creative mind is an endless, empty void.
We at Dabble have all been there. And we’ve got your back with character brainstorming questions to get those wheels turning, quick tips for building an unforgettable character, and a bunch of character ideas you can just straight-up steal.
Let’s get into it.
Character Writing Ideas
Whether it’s the protagonist, antagonist, or a precocious child who knows too much about adult matters and/or sees ghosts, every character in your story should be a thoughtfully designed blend of several different components.
I’m going to lay out these character ideas component-by-component so you can skim through, see what you might be missing, and fill in the blanks accordingly.
Components of Character
As you explore each of the following components to build a well-rounded character, remember to keep in mind your overall vision for this fictional friend (or foe). You don’t want to Frankenstein this character with a patchwork of character ideas that “just sound interesting.
The only exceptions are culture, race, disability, gender, and sexual orientation. While it’s important to understand how details like these influence your character’s perspective and experiences, these identities do not have to be central to the storyline.
A quirk is a unique quality that makes your character’s behavior or physicality particularly memorable. While a quirk is rooted in an internal trait (like an unusual fear of mailboxes), it manifests as a specific, repeated behavior (like a tendency to scream at mailboxes).
This character component can clue us in to what a character is feeling, reveal their values or priorities, or simply make them feel more real.
Questions for Brainstorming Character Quirks:
- Does your character collect anything? If so, why is that particular object important to them?
- What does your character do to soothe themselves when they’re anxious?
- Is there a particular emotion your character is uncomfortable expressing? In what way does that suppressed emotion reveal itself?
- Is there a phrase your character constantly says out of habit?
- Does your character have an unusual passion for an obscure mission or mundane pastime?
- Does your character have a super-specific fear or pet peeve?
Character Ideas You Can Steal:
- Sneezes when they’re nervous
- Has a bee for a pet
- Uses therapy phrases in everyday conversation
- Over-thinks simple decisions
- Under-thinks major decisions
- Can never find anything
- Has a new crush every month
- Has a new business idea every month
- Compulsively agrees with whomever they’re talking to
- Finishes every story by saying, “And that’s about the size of it.”
- Steals from the lost and found
- Plays a laugh track in their daydream like it’s an old sitcom
- Hires a sitter to keep their houseplants company
Weaknesses and Limitations
You know every plot needs a major obstacle—that giant, snarling ogre blocking the path. But what about the giant, snarling ogre of the soul? What internal force is holding your character back from their goal?
Limitations are particularly important when it comes to that crushing “All is Lost” moment. This is usually when the protagonist must face the fact that they’ve let themselves down. If they want to win, they have to change.
Questions for Brainstorming Character Limitations:
- How might your character’s personal values prevent them from solving a problem the easy way?
- Is your character chasing the wrong goal? Why can’t they see what’s actually best for them?
- How was your character raised to see themselves and the world? Are they stubbornly rooted in these old beliefs?
- What wound has taught your character to be closed-off, skeptical, desperate for connection, etc.?
- Is there someone your character just can’t seem to say “no” to?
- What is your character’s greatest temptation?
- Does your character have a physical limitation that makes it difficult for them to reach their goal? (Side note: If your character has a physical disability that you do not have, do your research and hire consultants or sensitivity readers. Someone from within the disability community can help you avoid harmful stereotypes or wrong assumptions.)
Character Ideas You Can Steal:
- Rejects potential allies because they think everyone’s out to get them
- Gets violent anxiety hiccups whenever they have to make a speech
- Immediately trusts anyone who is nice to them
- Won’t do anything difficult out of fear of failure
- Is desperate to impress someone who will never value them
- Cannot handle being alone
- Hates asking for help
- Has no sense of direction
- Cannot feel physical pain
- Wants to make it in high society but doesn’t fit in
- Can’t stop fixating on the worst-case scenario
If you’re hung up on that three-paragraph description of your character’s appearance, you can let it go. There is no reader in all of human history who was desperate to know whether or not the protagonist had attached earlobes.
Instead, zero in on a few features that:
- Reflect personality,
- Tell us how others perceive the character, or
- Tell us how the character perceives themselves.
Heads-up: physical traits like race and disabilities do not need to have some deeper meaning. Diversity is a reality, and that’s reason enough to reflect diversity in the stories we tell. On that note, here’s an incredible resource for describing skin tone.
Questions for Brainstorming Physical Traits:
- Is there anyone in real life who reminds you of your character? Do they have any physical traits that seem to reflect their personality?
- How do others perceive your character?
- What physical feature is your character insecure about?
- What physical feature is your character proud of?
- Does your character have any scars, birthmarks, freckles, or other distinctive marks?
- How would your character like to be perceived? What do they do to make that happen?
- What is your character’s favorite outfit?
- How does your character wear their hair?
Physical Trait Ideas You Can Steal:
- Wears unique glasses
- Dresses exclusively in clothes from the 1940s
- Has uncombable hair
- Loves make-up and does it up big every day
- Always wears the same color
- Looks exactly like their siblings
- Dresses up to take out the trash
- Would wear cut-offs to a funeral
- Has a prominent and poorly drawn tattoo
- Has a broken collar bone from an old hockey accident
- Wears the same accessory or item of clothing every day
- Always has dirt under their fingernails
Occupation or Hobbies
“What do you do?”
I personally hate this question, because the answer, “I’m a writer” almost always leads to me having to explain how I pay my bills. Honestly, most people I know hate being asked what they do. And yet, we all keep asking each other because it’s informative.
How does this person spend their days? Is this their passion? If they hate it, what do they hate about it? What would they rather be doing?
We get the same great deets when we know how your character fills their hours.
Questions for Brainstorming Character Occupation/Hobbies:
- Does your character’s job allow them to embrace their greatest strengths and interests?
- Is your character dreaming of a better job?
- Does your character hate their job? If so, why do they hate it? Why did they choose it?
- How does your character’s job or hobby allow them to demonstrate their abilities?
- What limitations or weaknesses do we see when we see your character at work?
- How might your character’s job experience serve them in their journey?
- What activity brings your character profound joy?
Character Ideas You Can Steal:
- Works as a dog trainer but dreams of being a horse trainer
- Retired from the priesthood
- Spends every after-school hour writing fanfiction
- Works a tollbooth and loves it
- Dreams of opening a cat café
- Studies ballet to become a better football player
- Just got into competitive bird watching
- Runs a shoe store with their spouse and worries it’s ruining their marriage
- Became a runner just for the solitude
- Sells timeshares
- Looking for work as a full-time villain
Relationships are life. This is why I get frustrated (my boyfriend might say “ragey”) when romantic comedies—one of the greatest art forms of all time—phone in the relationship with clichés.
She’s pretty but doesn’t know it because she’s too busy chasing her dreams in the big city. He wasn’t the boyfriend type until he saw her spill coffee on herself. They’re both witty in the exact same way.
Nope. Not enough. Somebody tell me why these two people are better together than they are apart. How do they bring the best out in one another?
No matter the genre, well-crafted relationships have the power to turn a generic trope into a textured human life. I’m talking all relationships: romantic, friendly, parent-child, boss-employee, superhero-butler. All of them.
Questions for Brainstorming Character Relationships:
- Who is the most influential person in your character’s life?
- Who does your character fear and why do they fear them?
- Does your character see themselves reflected in another person? Is it someone they admire or someone who reminds them of their own worst qualities?
- Who does your character feel compelled to protect?
- How does your character relate to others? Do they seek connection or avoid it? Do they put up a false front or allow others to see their true selves? Are they afraid of needing someone? Are they dying to be needed?
- Who makes your character feel safe?
- Who makes your character feel understood?
- Looking at one specific relationship:
- How does this person inspire or force your character to grow?
- How does your character feel about themselves when they are with this person?
- Does this person make up for any of your character’s weaknesses or failings?
- How does your character feel about the world when they are with this person?
Character Relationship Ideas You Can Steal:
- Has a jealous mentor
- Actively trying to fall in love with their best friend because it would be convenient
- Just moved away from home and doesn’t know who they are without family
- Relied on their sibling for stability and guidance growing up
- Feels like their most authentic self when they’re with their love interest
- Feels weak and unimportant beside the protagonist
- Longs for the approval of literally any authority figure
- Beginning to distrust their oldest friend
- Feels like they have to be helpful to be valued
Can you imagine The Hunger Games if Katniss was just in it for the cool clothes? Would we find Indigo Montoya as endearing if he were after the six-fingered man because the six-fingered man owed him money?
If motivation weren’t important, there wouldn’t be a raging debate about whether or not Snape’s childhood trauma and lifelong love for Lily redeem him. (They don’t. But these details do give him depth.)
Questions for Brainstorming Character Motivations:
- What has your character sworn never to do?
- What has your character promised always to do?
- When your character daydreams, what kind of life do they imagine?
- What is missing in your character’s life right now?
- Is there a terrible mistake your character must correct?
- Was your character’s childhood idyllic? If so, what aspects of their childhood do they want to carry into adulthood?
- Was your character’s childhood painful? If so, how do they want to correct that pain in their adulthood?
- What does your character fear most?
- What does your character long for the most?
- In your character’s perception, what would it mean to be happy?
- What does your character want to avoid at all costs?
Character Motivations You Can Steal:
- Fear of abandonment
- Fear of losing their own identity inside a relationship
- Feels most powerful when manipulating others
- Fear of outshining a parent or mentor
- Wants to create the perfect suburban life
- Wants to be a bigger star than their famous sibling
- Promised to avenge a loved one’s death
- Sick of living under an oppressive ruler
- Wants to be valued by society
- Wants to be free
Not even your hero can be all heroic. Perfection robs your character of an arc. Even side characters are more enjoyable when they have a few messy layers.
Make sure your character’s flaws serve the story. It might help to think of their flaws intertwined with limitations. How are they holding themselves back with their own personal shortcomings?
Questions for Brainstorming Character Flaws:
- What perfectly reasonable thing does your character hate?
- Is your character prone to jealousy?
- What is your character stubborn about?
- What would your character be like as a roommate?
- How might your character’s backstory understandably change someone for the worse?
- What would be the worst mistake your character could make in your story? What flaw can you give them to make that mistake feel inevitable?
Character Ideas You Can Steal:
- Rude to children
- Rude to the elderly
- Suspicious of everyone
- Talks over people
- Talks before thinking
- Has poor impulse control
- Easily manipulated
- Has impossible standards
For even more thieve-worthy ideas, check out our article on character flaws.
When you nail down your character’s worldview, you help your reader understand them better. Their choices start to make more sense and they might even become more sympathetic. Or more infuriating! It’s all in your hands, you crafty puppeteer.
Just try to avoid writing too much philosophy into dialogue, unless that’s your character’s quirk. Most people just do what they do and say what they say without explaining themselves. Philosophizing should be saved for moments when someone demands an explanation.
Questions for Brainstorming Character Philosophy:
- What are the central beliefs and values of your character’s religion?
- What are the central beliefs and values of your character’s culture?
- How does your character view money?
- How does your character view power?
- Does your character believe people are inherently good or inherently bad?
- Does your character do something you would consider bad? How would they justify that action?
- What is something society sees as good that your character would classify as bad?
Character Ideas You Can Steal:
- Sees the worst in everything
- Sees the best in everything
- Has a new conspiracy theory every day
- Wants to return to nature and total self-sufficiency
- Is a strict pacifist
- Believes money is evil
- Believes money is the only thing in the world that makes sense
- Trusts a higher power to provide for them or give them the answers
- Believes in ghosts
- Only believes in what can be observed
How to Make Your Characters Feel Real
Ever do that thing where you start telling someone about the funny thing your friend said the other day, then rack your brain trying to remember which friend it was only to realize it wasn’t a friend? It wasn’t even a person! It was only a series of words that your brain turned into a memory.
This is the kind of wizardry you can accomplish when you know how to make your characters live and breathe. And how do you do that?
Putting together a robust combination of the character components above will help. To take it to the next level, try these tips:
Steal from Your Life
Observe your loved ones. Look at the stranger FaceTiming with her kid in the coffee shop. Look at yourself. The more we observe real people and the better we understand ourselves, the more familiar we become with the details that make our characters feel real.
Play (Carefully) with Contradictions
Real people are complicated. They can hold conflicting beliefs at the same time. They can be type-A about one thing and loosey-goosey about another. Let your character contradict themselves. But try to make the contradiction carry some logic in their own head.
Your character could “love classical music,” or they could play The Best of Brahms on their commute everyday, letting the music sweep them beyond their anxiety-ridden life.
See the difference? When you translate your character’s feelings, thoughts, desires, and fears into a specific choice or habit, you make them feel real.
Dive Deep on Archetypes
Studying characters as specific “types” may feel like a step away from human character design. But it’s actually a great lesson in emotional logic. Each character model has a set of fears, desires, and experiences that naturally lead to their defining motives, traits, and values.
Study What Works
You know the rule: if you want to write well, you’ve got to read a lot. This goes for character development, too. Make a list of all the characters that still feel so real to you. Then go back and study them. Why do they work?
Master Their Voice
Does your character speak in short, direct sentences, or are their sentences slow, long, and rambling? Are they smooth and articulate or constantly searching for words? What phrases do they tend to repeat? Do they have any nicknames for other characters?
Whether your character only speaks in dialogue or they’re the narrator of your story, a little voice work can do a lot to make them real for your reader.
Let Your Character Become a Real Boy
In The Art of Character, David Corbett makes a strong argument for allowing your characters to evolve throughout the process. As Corbett says:
“...we start with a bit of raw material that interests us, and work at it day and night, not just deliberately and attentively but lovingly, until finally, like Pinocchio, through some strange paradox, that bit of material takes on a life of its own.”
You don’t have to worry about collecting the perfect character ideas from the get-go. Find what makes sense for now, put your creature on the page, and let the rest be a process of discovery. If your character starts pulling you another direction, follow joyfully. It means you’ve created something real.
That is to say, you’re living the dream.
Want an easy way to keep track of your character ideas as they arise? Check out the Character Notes feature in Dabble! And by “check it out,” I mean “try it for free for fourteen days.” In fact, just try all of Dabble’s premium features for free by clicking this link.
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