Creating Characters from the Outside In

I’ve recently discovered Good Witch, a Hallmark Channel series whose first three seasons are on Netflix. It’s one of those cheesy shows where somebody’s always giving heartfelt advice and everyone’s problems are solved by the end of each episode (perhaps a hallmarkof its network). Of course, I’m hooked.

One of my favorite things about the show (aside from the distinctly New England feel that has me ready for Halloween in July) is that the main character’s high school daughter, Grace, is as much of a bookwork as I was back in the day. So when Season 4, Episode 5, “Written like a Merriwick,” started with Grace complaining about writer’s block as a deadline loomed in her fiction class, I knew I was in for some inspiration.

Sure enough, an old steamer trunk arrived at Grey House that very morning, chock full of Grace’s great grandmother’s clothes, and the moment Grace put on an aviator jacket from inside the trunk, she felt a deep connection to Elizabeth Merriwick and a story came pouring out of her.

“I put it on, and I couldn't help but wonder where this jacket has been and what was going on when Elizabeth was wearing it.”

- Grace Nightingale, Good Witch

Granted, there may have been a little magic involved in Grace’s case, but she was onto something, approaching a character through an item of clothing.

As writers, our default tendency is to try to pull our characters out of thin air, cobbling together all the details, from their biographies to their pet peeves to the clothes they wear. While many incredible characters are born this way, I’ve found that, when we take the same approach every time we invent someone new, the effort to make every character distinct can become exhausting.

So what if we went at it the opposite way, once in a while?

What if we started with an unfamiliar object—an aviator jacket, for example—and consider its history and the type of person who might have owned it. This tactic can be especially useful when you’re trying to bring to life a character who’s wildly different from you. A pair of stilettos could help conceptualize a fashionista, a worn pair of hiking boots could evoke an outdoorsy nomad, or a high-collared gown could put you in the mind-set of a Victorian Era society darling. Or an aviator jacket could help you create a 1930s aviation pioneer, just like it did for Grace.

"Mrs. Kline: I love how you captured the time period of when the adventure took place. You must have done hours of research to get all the details so right. 

Grace: No. No, I sort of just made it up as I went along."

Good Witch

Next time you start to feel stuck creating a character from the inside out, give it a try from the outside in.