Creating Characters is Like Playing with a Mr. Potato Head

Or a game of Operation, but that sounded far too cynical.  🙂

I remember mixing and matching a Mr. Potato Head as a kid. And as an adult.

Hey, a pre-school teacher has to get his hands dirty and play along with the kids. It’s for their fulfillment. Whatever, I don’t have to explain myself!

Anywho, I recently took a mini break from writing my zombie novel to do some secondary writing. Yup, I relax from writing by writing some more.

The other novel is a Young Adult novel that I started about 10 years ago but let stagnate because of college, teaching, and kung fu.

What do Mr. Potato Heads and writing novels have in common? I’m glad you asked.

I realize that everyone has a different method for coming up with the characters in their stories. Some start with a name and develop a character that would fit that name.

Others look to the environment and ask “what kind of person would live here?”

Me? I take one piece of that person, a piece that I find particularly cool, and build outward from there.

I might take a certain speech pattern. Yes, just an abstract vernacular or accent that I pluck from the ether, and build someone around that.

Let’s say I choose a cockney accent (one of my favs). Well, that accent always seems to belong to a wise-ass, so maybe I can use it for a character who’s sarcastic and uses words to make up for his size.

A small guy. A goblin.

So now I have a goblin who’s swearing in a cockney accent.

My Mr. Potato Head started with a mouth this time, and I plugged it into my oblong canvas with gusto.

'ello, guvna!


Other times, I’ll start with the way a character would dress. Again, it’s abstract. There is no body or personality at all. Just an article of clothing.

A bowler hat.

Cant’ have a bowler hat without a cane (in my mind).

Bowler hat? Cane? Double breasted vest.

A refined gentleman comes into being.

This Mr. Potato Head started with his accessories first. I don’t care about his mouth or eyes or ears just yet. What he uses is far more interesting at the moment of conception.

And if one part of him doesn’t fit very well? Then I just pluck it out and choose another.

You guys get the idea.

That’s my character creation process, anyway. How do you get create your own characters?

Or, for my artistic friends out there, how do you choose the subjects for your paintings, sketches, or other projects?


28 comments on “Creating Characters is Like Playing with a Mr. Potato Head

  1. Well, sometimes it depend on what I’m writing. Pertaining to my main story most of the characters were sprouted from colors and the numbers that corresponds with those. (Weird. Yes.) For example, based on the religion the “Eidogirra” practice, someone who possesses red energy or E9 is short-tempered and somewhat critical. Someone with green energy or E3 is lively, upbeat, and also a bit gullible.
    It was different for the main character however, he was born one day after I come up with a strange name to use for role-playing; thus he was born from the name “Aladar Marnray”. The origin? Not even I can answer that.

    • Numbers and colors? That’s fascinating. And it has an element of truth, at least in terms of the kinds of emotions colors make us feel.

      I also like how different characters have different origins. Writing is just a wonderful creative process, isn’t it?

  2. What a fun post! I love Mr. Potato Head as a visual aid for character creation. For me, much depends upon the role of the character—is it a main or secondary character, and what purpose does this character serve in my story. A character can be a foil for the main character, a device for allowing the main character to voice his thoughts or reasoning (as Watson is to Holmes), comic relief, a symbol or representation of a certain situation or population, a red herring, a means of jump starting the action, etc.. In any case, details, quirks, flaws, vulnerabilities, and the unexpected will capture a reader’s interest far more than a Mary Sue or a two-dimensional character, even for bit parts.

    My characters are often a conglomeration of physical features, behavioral traits, twitches, quirks, habits of people I have known or can picture in my head. But that is just the starter seed, and it doesn’t take long before a character begins to take on a life of its own. A character doesn’t exactly write its own lines, but it becomes enough of a separate entity for you to be able to ask yourself, “What would he/she do in this situation?” Thanks again for another great post.

    • I’ve always admired character creation that revolves around function (comic relief, obstacle, etc.). I find myself doing that too. I’ll ask myself “what kind of person do I need for x?”

      And you’re so right about fleshing out a character enough to ask what he’d do in a given situation. For me, it’s especially true when writing dialogue. I have to catch myself sometimes and ask “would he really say that?”

      Thanks again for another great comment. 😉

  3. I love the Mr. Potato Head comparison. I can think of a few of a my fictional characters whose bodies began with just one great appendage, often belonging to someone I knew in real life.

    For example, my friend Sibby’s German grandma has hands the size of a catcher’s mitt and her English (‘The mens should do garbage”) is cutting and telling. When I needed a harsh grandma for a story about a boy whose mom was a hooker, I began with Grandma Matyka’s fists, and then her mouth.

    I read somewhere once that every time a writer leaves the house, they should “come home with a face.” I say come home with a moustache, or a nose or plastic pink ears…

    • Haha, what a great example, Natalie. I can just imagine that grandma vividly in my mind.

      How could anyone meet her and not create a character from her at some point? 🙂

      Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. I suppose writing might be considered my creativity in some ways…. But I can identify with what you’re saying. For me thoughts form in an abstract fashion. I can’t give a post a title without writing the body first. It’s just too limiting otherwise.

    And aside from the 30 Days of Truth, I usually don’t plan what I write. I sit down with the PC and start typing. When I am done I read it to see if it makes sense and correct a few typos and boom. I name it.

    It’s funny how things work.

    Love the Mr.Potato analogy 🙂

    • Glad you liked the analogy. I might just have to buy one and park it on my desk to aid in my character development. 😛

      I like your creative process, maybe because I write in the same way. I feel like the best titles come from looking at your finished work and encapsulating it in a few words, rather than trying to make your writing fit the title. Like you said: it’s too limiting.

      Outside of 30 Days of Truth and some of your other blog posts, do you ever write fiction or other kinds of works (poems, short stories, etc.)?

      • You know I can’t say I have ever tried to write fiction and I have never really tried writing poems. Once in like Junior High I was required to write a story book which I worked really hard on and my teacher thought it was great but he couldn’t stand me so I didn’t get a very good grade. Sometimes I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more or pursued it further if I’d had encouragement hut I never did. However you’ve reminded me of something i would like to write about.. 🙂

        Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

  5. Creating characters is my favorite part of the fiction writing process!

    I never really though about what my technique for creating characters is. I always just sortta did it. But your post got me thinking and I realized I do something similar to your Mr. Potato technique: I take a personality trait, an accent, a voice, a physical trait, a fashion article, or something of the sort and I start from there. It also depends on the kind of character I’m creating (primary, secondary, etc) and the function they serve in my story ( I create plot before character). Although, sometimes I find myself creating a secondary character that I like so much I turn his/her role in the story into a bigger one.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • I know exactly what you mean about secondary characters who just seem to pop out of the page and demand a larger role in your story. I’ve had a couple; sometimes I find them even more interesting than my main character!

      I truly enjoy your blog posts about things in life that make you feel great. Maybe one day you could share some of your writing? 🙂

  6. Well, when I write I start out with some idea in my head. And if I like the story, necessarily there’s a main character. This character is pretty much set in stone in my mind and I build the rest around it following their function and a bit my personal taste. Also I think about where the story is set and then think about the character’s meaning. Most often I search through google and look for names with a similiar meaning. (Does that sound really weird?) Sometimes I already have a name in the back of my mind and then I just look up the meaning of it.
    I like the analogy with Mr. Potato Head. 🙂

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