Starting Points for
1. If you're writing a personal essay or memoir...
Some thoughts from Philip Lopate:
“In personal essays... the writer needs to build herself into a character...
“So how do you turn yourself into a character? First of all, you need to have – or acquire – some distance from yourself. If you are so panicked by any examination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal essays. You need to be able to see yourself from the ceiling...
“A good place to start is your quirks. These are the idiosyncrasies, stubborn tics, antisocial mannerisms, and so on that set you apart from the majority of your fellowmen. There will be more than enough time later to assert your common humanity, or better yet, to let the reader make the mental bridge between your oddities and those of everyone else... Who wants to read about that bland creature, the regular Joe?”
(Excerpted from “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character”)
2. If you're creating fictional characters...
My starting points:
Abandon all shoulds.
Look for any spark that lights you up or intrigues you.
Create characters you don’t fully understand.
Look for both external conflict and internal conflict in the character’s life.
As you develop a character, and think about their backstory, write what gives you energy and don't worry about being thorough.
3. David Ford's wisdom on “normal”
From a workshop David and I taught many years ago...
Student (after reading something she’d written): “I don’t know, the people in this piece don’t seem normal.”
David: “There’s nothing normal about people.”