Tag: creativity

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?




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.

WingedHorseWritingStudio.com; also on Facebook