The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

24 March 2010


Lately, I've encountered some great posts on characters (All Write with Coffee, A Woman's Write...and others that I can't find again, sorry!). I've ended up typing paragraphs on the subject in people's comments, so I decided this might be a better forum for my long windedness.

A topic that comes up again and again is how much of your self do you put into your characters? I know one of my beta readers is always trying to figure out which character is "me". The answer, of course, is all of them. Even the villains. I'm not talking superficial traits, appearance, habits, etc. (there may or may not be some of that there)-- I mean emotions. You have to feel it to write it.

I often imagine myself with a character's history and present dire circumstances and ask, "How would I feel? What would I do?" Sometimes (like with bad guys that are way meaner than me or main characters that aren't as cool and James Bond-like as I'd imagine myself to be in their shoes) I have to do some method acting. I don't wander around the room muttering like a mad villain or anything, but I use my own experiences of anger or frustration to imagine myself as that person. Same goes for characters experiencing joy or sadness. Nothing like the memory of my old St. Bernard, Bernie, to get me sobbing like...well a girl. Once you're "in character" it's much easier to write their dialogue and actions. That's when they do things that surprise you. It's a great feeling.

Paradoxically, the most important thing a fictional character needs is honesty. Interesting characters do and say the things we hide away in the deepest parts of our subconscious. When someone comes to work wearing a hideous purple shirt adorned with giant polka dots, most of us will keep quiet to avoid being rude, maybe even grasp for a compliment. An interesting character, however, might blurt out, "My god! You're not quitting to join the circus are you? We're so far behind schedule even you're needed." That's a nasty example. Few heroes can get away with saying our worst thoughts.

Main characters need an even deeper honesty. They have to be self aware and show the reader all those internal doubts, fears, hopes, and dreams that the writer and all humanity share. How can you not feel sympathy and care about the fate of a character who has the same fears you do? A woman's child is stolen from their front yard and she's frantically knocking on every neighbor's door asking if they've seen him; you're so angry with your spouse you scream at them until they leave, and then they die in a car wreck and it's all your fault...I could go on, but those examples were getting me depressed. How about a teenager with Down's syndrome who learns flower arranging and gets a job at a local florist where he meets a girl that doesn't look at him with pity but with interest? You may not know what it's like to be disabled, but you do know what it feels like to accomplish something that seemed impossible or to experience the first stirrings of romance. The honesty of those experiences and how they are processed in your character's mind are what makes your story matter to the reader.

The problem with dredging up too much real emotion and honesty from your own experiences is that sometimes your characters come out alike; they're too you. That's why it's important to have different backstories and behaviors so you can hide that underlying "you-ness". Having a multiple personality disorder really helps with this :) Otherwise, you can borrow tidbits from other people's lives, friends, relatives, observation at the mall, people in the newspaper.... It's never a good idea to use their details entirely (a friend might recognize themselves and not like what you did with the character--ok, in my case, it was a relative), rather mix things up a bit. I have this scientist friend who truly believes that gummy bears count as a fruit because they have 10% fruit juice. I thought she was a logical person. Sometimes truth is more interesting than anything you could think up, so use it. However, I wouldn't make my gummy-bear loving character a scientist but maybe a health nut. Someone always exercising and trying the latest organic diets, so when the gummy bear thing comes up it's out of left field. Much more interesting.

Another thing (which I constantly struggle with, by the way, so any suggestions are much appreciated) your character needs in order to be a distinctive individual is a voice. This can be how they speak in dialogue, the length of sentences, vocabulary, rhythm etc., but, when it comes to a POV character, it's also how they think in their head. With some characters, I have no problem writing in a distinctive narrative voice, others end up sounding like me. The only thing I've discovered so far to help with this is to write the character's thoughts down (like a journal) in first person, even if the book is 3rd person. I make them tell me about their life until I start to hear their voice in my head.

Well, that's it. That's all I've got on this subject. What's your approach to writing characters? As a reader, what makes a protagonist sympathetic? And do any of you struggle with voice as much as I do?


  1. I definitely find facets of me in my protagonists. I think I take a part of my personality and magnify it. For Hatshepsut it's her sense of responsibility.

    I also try to relate every scene to something I've experienced. I think that helps the scene come across as more realistic.

  2. When the protagonist is portrayed in a way that they seem like a neighbor or someone you know, you can't help but be sympathetic to them. Creating a protagonist that has real traits is a big thing.

  3. I'm touched that you would mention me. Thank you.

    Your post is wonderful. You give great examples of how you put yourself in your characters. As for the question you ask about voice, I still continue to struggle with it. Especially when I'm tired. It's always easier to revert to my voice. But, then comes editing... I fix it then.


  4. I'm not any of my characters, but thanks to years of acting I find it very easy to view the world through someone else's eyes. I may not agree with the way they see things, but I can understand why they do.

    Great post.

  5. I love your idea of putting yourself in their shoes, imagining going through what they've been through. That's what it's all about!

  6. love the pic you've chosen to illustrate the point :)

  7. Stephanie--Yes, magnifying a facet of your personality is a great way to go.

    Mason--True. Even if the protagonist isn't just like you, as long as they're someone real and recognizable you'll feel sympathy for them.

    Ann--Thank you! It's nice to know I'm not the only one with a voice problem. As difficult as editing is, it is SO necessary.

    Elspeth--That acting experience must be so helpful! I try to understand other people and see through their eyes, but I've never written a protagonist that I didn't agree with in some way. It would be a challenge.

    Heather--Yes, that's why we read! We want to experience someone else's life.

    Dezmond--Thanks. I can't resist cool, smoking cows :)

  8. It helps me to create amalgams of different people I know...then I can imagine what THEY would do in these situations. Otherwise--if the characters were all like me--I wouldn't have any books out. Because nothing would ever happen! I'm too boring. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  9. Creating characters always starts with emotion for me. Once I have their emotional reaction to a scene, I let them walk around in my head and I get to know them. I don't think they are anybody, but they're probably bits and pieces of me and everyone I know.

  10. Great post! This character stuff is a real challenge. I like Donald Maass' tool in his Writing the Breakthrough Novel workbook. He gives a list of common words (like drink, car, house) and makes you write down what each character would call these things. It helps you develop your different voices and make them distinct.

  11. Elizabeth--You're not boring! I like your idea of creating amalgams and then infusing them with a will of their own. It's very Dr. Frankenstein :)

    Jemi--That sounds alot like what I do. I don't even have a story until I have the emotional arc of the characters figured out.

    Portia--I have that book! I haven't gotten past the second exercise yet. I'll have to skip ahead and try the section on voice. Thanks!

  12. Lorel ~ I have something waiting for you over at my blog. :)

  13. Sometimes I struggle with voice. My last WIP featured an 11yr old girl - which was easy, 'cause I had one right here in my house. But now I'm writing a 12-13yr old boy and as a mum of girls I'm finding it a bit different. What I am finding helps me is I ask my husband and my dad to tell me things they got up to when they were 12, and I'm getting some great material (and learning some things I probably didn't want to know). I agree with you honesty is the most important approach to a good character.

  14. Charmaine--It's great you're finding such helpful resources at home! I've picked my husband's brain plenty of times for a boy's perspective on dating, high school, and whatever else I haven't experienced but he has (like a dislocated shoulder). I think that authenticity and honesty makes a WIP more believable. And you're right, I've learned lots of *interesting* things about the opposite sex. I'm convinced they're an entirely different species.

  15. There are facets of my children in my characters! :-)