Author: Pam Sourelis

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?




Being Different

Being Different


In my April 2 blog post (“So Many Fears”), I suggested a brief process for acknowledging writing fears that will allow the writer to move past them.

Fears seem to be fed by darkness, so bringing them into the light can short-circuit their energy supply and allow us to move forward with our work. (No, not forever. We will probably need to return to this, or another, method of banishing crippling fear from time to time.)


A reader responded on my FB page:

“I find, both for my students and for me, that many of our writing fears come from comparing ourselves to others. Of course, there’s great irony in trying to create art while trying not to be different.”


Oh, yes, comparing is death to creativity.

But “trying not to be different”? That put a whole other spin on it. We only think we want to be different?


Consider this: The fears surrounding our writing (and all other creative endeavors) boil down to the fear of not being accepted, of not being loved—not just our work not being loved, us not being loved.

Do you agree?

If so, what’s the best way to be sure we will be accepted, that we will be congratulated, loved?

By conforming, yes? By following in the footsteps of those who have already gained this acceptance, this admiration—our admiration.

I’m not suggesting that we should venture out completely on our own. The work of those who have come before us teaches us, nourishes us, challenges us to step further out on the limb, closer to the edge of the cliff . . .


But what if we fail? What if we’re not good enough? What if we end up alone with our unread manuscript? What then?


But if we don’t try . . . so we gather our wits and begin to spin a crazy tale, a bloody, gutsy tale (and this can be fictional or not). But what if we’ve gone too far? What if no one will read it? Then what’s the point?

No, we’ll do it. We create the Idea, or allow the Idea to come in, however this works; we can see the whole thing!

But now the work of putting flesh on the bones begins, the work of getting the tale to stick on the page, but not stick, to fly or run or float. And, well, that’s something altogether different.

And so we put the Idea in a dusty apartment in our heads, where it aimlessly wanders from room to room, stops to examine a crack in the wall, a bit of lint on the carpet.


Why have we done this?

If we’re lucky, it, the Idea, will walk by a dirt-streaked window and in a fit of distraction throw it open: The bright, clean sun and warm air will breathe life into its tired bones.

The Idea is ready to burst out of the apartment. But it takes care not to hurl itself out the window! It rushes down the hall, and just as it is ready to explode through the front door, where we will begin to allow it—the vision, the setting, the characters who have been chatting and singing and eating with their fingers and slapping children and kissing old men—to take shape in the light . . .

just as we are beginning to allow this awesome, risky, terrifying freedom, we think of all the reasons it cannot work. We think of all the writers we love; we hold ourselves next to them, they who have never done anything like this, and know we are not worthy.

We quickly, firmly, close the door.



Pam Sourelis writes short stories and personal essays. She assists other writers as a developmental editor, writing instructor, and writing coach/mentor.; also on Facebook



So Many Fears!

So Many Fears!


So Many Fears!


I taught college composition for years (and loved it, by the way). Students would come to the first class either excited (because this was their first quarter of college and everything was exciting) or, more often, anxiety-ridden over having to take yet another writing class. I mean, seriously? They’d been learning writing for next to forever, for six, seven, eight years; what more was there to learn?

And not only did they already know everything there was to know about writing, what if they didn’t know? What if they were really awful at it but no one had told them? What if I, the instructor, was the typical (in their minds) red-pen-wielding, creativity-crushing nit picker, who would devote extraordinary amounts of time and energy ridiculing and humiliating them when, really, they already knew all there was to know?

I’d introduce myself, make sure everyone was in the right place, and then, before anything else—before students introduced themselves, before I even passed out the syllabus—I’d ask them to pair up with someone else in the class, move their chairs (which were arranged in a circle) so that they were face to face with their partner. Then I assigned a four-minute exercise.


The Exercise: Fears

Choose who will be “A” and who will be “B.”

“A” begins. For two minutes, tell “B” all of your fears about this class and anything that has to do with this class. Tell your fears one by one. (Remember, this was a writing class, so the fears all had to do with writing.)

After each one, “B” responds with one word: “OK.”

There is no discussion, only acknowledgment.

At the end of the two minutes, I will call time, and “B” will tell fears to “A” for two minutes.


The Results

At the end of the four minutes, the room always felt different. The anxiety had lifted. The energy had ramped up. I asked students how they felt, and most all of them said good or great or relieved, mostly relieved.

Each of them had been allowed to express their fears (and the fears, of course, were universally associated with failure, which looked different to each of them) and have those fears heard without discussion or judgment.

This is not to say, of course, that fear didn’t emerge for the rest of the term, that it didn’t tighten its grip around students’ throats at some point or another, usually when they were beginning a project.

But then they could do this fears process again.


Your Turn

Give it a try.

List your fears about writing—writing in general or a project that you’ve begun and are struggling with or have tabled.

Don’t try to talk yourself out of your fears. Just list them. Two minutes. No stopping.

Then read them aloud, and after each item on your list, say “OK.”

Don’t beat yourself up over your fears. Just acknowledge them.


How do you feel now?



Pam Sourelis writes short stories and personal essays. She assists other writers as a developmental editor, writing instructor, and writing coach/mentor.; also on Facebook



Does Outlining Crush Writer’s Block?

Does Outlining Crush Writer’s Block?

I recently began working with a woman who was suffering from a crippling case of writer’s block.

A semi-retired addictions counselor, she (I’ll call her Jan) had been trying to write a memoir about her approach to treating addiction as a family illness. Speaking with her about her project, I could hear her passion. Jan had come from an addictive household herself, a household headed by an alcoholic father, and had later recreated that household when she married an alcoholic.

After eventually leaving him and remarrying, Jan returned to school late in life to earn her Master’s Degree and begin working in the field of addiction counseling. In our conversation, she said she had discovered a new way of helping clients see that the illness affected the whole family, not just the one abusing an addictive substance. She wanted to reach more people, to help more people, with her book.

But she was stuck.


What Does This Have to do with Outlining?

Before coming to me, Jan had been working with another writing coach. When Jan got stuck, the coach suggested she create a table of contents for the book—an outline. Jan created one, a very detailed one. She and the coach had discussed the outline itself: what to cut, what to possibly add, how to reorganize the topics.

But Jan was still stuck.

I get the image of mice running madly around in a closed box, bumping into each other, looking for the door to freedom but not finding it.

Apparently, Jan felt the same way. She was frustrated and teetering on the edge of despair about the possibility of ever putting into words the thoughts slamming around in her head.


You Have to be Messy before You Can be Neat.

Think back to when you were forced to write outlines in grade school or high school. You hated them, right? Do you remember why?

Outlines help you to organize your writing, to get a sense of what comes first, second, third. When I taught college writing, I forbade students (just kidding; it was just a strong suggestion) from outlining until after they’d written their first draft.


Because you have to figure out what you mean first, a very messy process of discovery.

Being forced to organize material you haven’t created yet can create a whole lot of frustration that can lead to (or exacerbate) a mammoth case of writer’s block.


Change the Approach: Ask Questions.

You can ask yourself all kinds of questions to get your hands moving across the keyboard or notebook again.

With Jan, I began with “Who is your audience? What do they know, believe, and feel about the topic?” I asked her to dig deep, but she stayed on the surface, so my next question was:

“You say you used to be one of them, right? What did you know, believe, and feel about the topic? Why do you want to write to them? What are you exploring in your own life?”

That series of questions set her free. She wrote pages of summary peppered with character sketches, a wealth of material. She will continue in that vein and then go back and expand each section: including more detail, creating scenes, honing dialog. And at some point, she will need to organize it.

All that is in the future. For now, Jan is happily writing, the outline tossed in the trash.


What questions can you ask about your writing that will set you free?


Note: Jan is writing a memoir, but the process of discovery holds for all kinds of writing, except straight reporting.



Pam Sourelis writes short stories and personal essays. She assists other writers as a developmental editor, writing instructor, and writing coach/mentor.; also on Facebook