Sam Shapiro, "Family Portrait." Age 18. 2011, American Visions Medal.

Ask Ned reader Gilberto wanted to know about creating characters and developing them. Ned shared some advice about how he approaches this challenge.

Gilberto Asked:

How do you come up with your characters, and how do you expand their personalities once you have an idea for one?

Ned Answered:

Gilberto, I come up with characters largely by basing them on real people. The easiest person to base a character on is myself because I know myself well (allegedly). So the main character in all of my books published thus far is based on me. These main characters have feelings and observations that I have had and know intimately. Other characters are based on friends or acquaintances — or are “dream” characters, people who I would love to meet but never did. For example, Noelle from It’s Kind of a Funny Story is not based on anyone real; she’s the kind of girl I would’ve liked to have met in high school (but did not).

Once you have the groundwork for a character based on a real world or a dream, you need a twist. The most basic twist is a change to the character’s name so as not to offend the friend (or enemy) you have based him or her on. However, the bigger the twist the better. For Noelle, I added scars. For other characters I have added baldness or vocal tics or given them funny hair. These twists on real life are what expand the character’s personalities and make them large enough to occupy a story.

Finally, a note about names: if possible you should have your characters’ names mean something. Jeremy Heere, from my book Be More Chill, “hears” a voice in his head. I don’t always give characters meaningful names, but all other things being equal it’s a good way to go. If you had a character who was a dancer, for instance, you might look up words for “dancer” in other languages and give the character a name based on one of those words. That will help expand the character’s personality as well as whatever twist you come up with. Hope that helps!


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Have questions about writing, or the business of publishing? Ask a real writer! Ned Vizzini Vizzini is the author of three acclaimed young adult books: It’s Kind of a Funny Story(now a major motion picture), Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah…. Ned has spoken at over 200 schools, universities, and libraries around the world about writing and mental health. E-mail your questions to

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