Creating Quirky Characters, by Donna Gephart

I spent a year researching and writing a 400-page novel told from the viewpoints of four separate characters. When finished, I sent it to my agent. After reading it, my agent politely told me to scrap the project and start something new. “Your characters,” she said, “are stereotypes.”


Had she read the same manuscript I’d sent? I had a deaf character, a character with OCD, a character who played the cello and…oh, I can’t even remember. My agent—as usual—was right. I hadn’t developed fully realized characters; I’d created caricatures.

Young readers won’t lose themselves in books populated with caricatures and stereotypes. They’ll lose interest.

How does a writer populate stories and novels with fully realized, well-developed, quirky characters?

Three places from which to create characters

1. Memory. What were you like as a child? What mattered to you? What was your favorite way to spend a Saturday morning? Where would you go on your bicycle? Who were your best friends? Enemies? What was your most traumatic experience? Which year in school do you remember most clearly?

It’s all fodder for your character.

The main character of my novel, As If Being 12¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President!, Vanessa Rothrock has big feet, a flat chest and loves the color purple—like, ahem, yours truly at that age. (OK, I still have big feet and love the color purple.) Vanessa is also klutzy, sports wild hair and has a penchant for spelling impossibly difficult words. Not me.

Our characters shouldn’t be clones of us; we are not writing memoirs. But they can share some of our attributes, thoughts, feelings and desires.