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By Caroline Donahue

As we head into Halloween season, one that creates a mania in the form of costumed alter-egos in the US, I’m struck by how this desire to become someone else can also serve writers.

Creation of a character can feel like an overwhelming undertaking to writers. It is challenging to conjure an entire person out of thin air. We feel like we have to play God, inventing someone who has never existed before.

However, if we take our cue from the world of costume, it’s clear how we can jump-start the process.

Have you ever thought of a clever comeback in an argument, ages after the discussion was over? Bit back words that felt too harsh? Wished you could speak your mind? Wanted to throw something out the window in a fit of emotion?

Guess what? Now you can.

One of the most effective ways to build characters is based on the question “What if?” These can be alternate choices you might have made in your own life or, even more fun, choices you would never dare to make.

My favorite part to play in the theater department was always “the bitch”. I felt total freedom as the show’s mean girl to strut around and say all the things I wasn’t allowed to say as myself. I learned to scream at the top of my lungs in one show, and was so rude I got a pie slammed in my face in another.

I loved it.

This impulse, tapping into the forbidden, breaking social rules and social norms, is what creates unforgettable characters. We read books to experience realities we aren’t currently living. At the moment with the pandemic, these realities are more restricted than ever and we are mostly at home with our thoughts.

Why not let these thoughts run wild and turn them into stories that let you live out those repressed scenarios?

As part of the podcast, I’ve interviewed numerous writers of dark thrillers, suspense and crime novels. When asked how writing dark material, with forbidden behavior ranging from sexy to murderous, impacted them, all recall a cathartic effect.

You don’t need to invent a character from nothing.

Here’s how to follow the Wicked method to create a character that people will stay up all night turning pages to live through vicariously:

  1. Ask yourself “If I could say absolutely everything I think and feel to someone who really pisses me off with absolutely no consequences afterward, who would I speak to and about what?” This person can be alive or dead, known or unknown to you.
  2. Free write your diatribe for as many pages as you like. Enjoy!
  3. Ask yourself: Who said all of this? If a total stranger read this, what would they think about the person who wrote it?
  4. Keep asking and building up details about this character until they come alive and seem three-dimensional.
  5. Delete the proper name of the person the diatribe is addressed to throughout the speech.
  6. What other situations might this apply to? What are the most interesting situations in which you can imagine this speech being delivered?
  7. Continue to work as you build up a setting and a situation to surround your character.

Imagining the most outrageous outcome and / or situation can help you flesh out the character and their world.

In a time and circumstances where we have very little control, writers can still shape the places we visit in our imaginations. We draw power as writers from exploring the forbidden. By building a character around something that shuns norms and breaks rules, we build energy for that story and that world.

Conflict is the driving engine and beating heart of story. Without conflict, you have an anecdote, possibly, not a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. And if we shy away from the wicked aspects of character, we shy away from conflict. The more comfortable you get with exposing the less flattering sides of your characters and, even better, putting them in situations that reveal these aspects, the more satisfying your writing is going to be, both for you while writing and, even better, for your reader.

Here’s hoping that the most wicked thing you find lurking in the dark this Halloween is a new character who breaks every rule they encounter. I promise you that this will get you the most treats for your writing.

Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel.  Learn more at


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