Are Your Characters Fake?

Are Your Characters Fake?


Recently, a member of one of the many writing groups on Facebook posted this:

“I dont mean this in a rude way at all…..but why do you people say their characters “speak” to them, like they have convestations with them??

Your writing about a fake person…. Maybe I just dont get it”


I responded:

“If you think of your characters as ‘fake,’ I imagine that’s how they appear to the reader as well.”

Right? I mean, if you don’t think of them as living, breathing humans, how will your readers be able to relate to them?


A few weeks later, someone asked for help with this problem:

“My main characters are a group of teenagers from different time periods. I’ve done the research for each time, but I’m kinda having trouble with making their personalities different from each other. I’ve even tried giving them slang from each time, but it seems like it’s not enough.”

I didn’t respond, but what I’m hearing from this writer is that his characters aren’t real people to him. They are just pieces being used to support a plot. A writer cannot make a character’s personality. A writer has to discover a character’s personality.


OK, but How?

How do you create or imagine or allow your characters to be real, to be flesh and blood?

I’ve often seen the suggestion that to get to know a character, writers should write detailed lists of characteristics (often superficial ones): favorite color, favorite ice cream, favorite band, favorite style of clothing . . . If this listing helps you to begin the process of discovery then, by all means, go for it. But don’t stop there. My favorite color—green—doesn’t define me. And I don’t imagine that it reveals much about me, either.

Two questions have always helped the writers I’ve worked with (including me) get in touch with their characters:

  • What does this character—this person—long for?

In what ways does this longing drive the character?

  • What is standing in the way of this character quenching that longing?

Are the blocks external, internal, both?


These may seem like simple questions. But if you take the time to fully engage with them, they will allow you to venture deep into the minds, deep into the hearts, deep into the psyches of your characters.


Hearing the Answers

These questions can be asked and answered in any number of ways: having a conversation with the character, stepping inside the character and looking out at the world through her eyes, asking her to write a letter or journal entry about her longing, watching her interact with another of your characters.

I like to dream my characters. I will begin by simply freewriting about them or just jumping into writing the story and seeing what they do. But when I can see that the character is thin, flat—fake—I will ask a question about her before going to sleep. The answer(s) often come in the form of dreams.

If your characters are not fully formed, your readers won’t care about them. Why? Because you haven’t cared about them enough to get to know them. You don’t need to know every single little detail about them. You need to know what drives them, what hurts them, what brings them peace. You need to understand the nature of the ember that keeps them alive and reaching for . . . for what?




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