Tag: fiction

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.

WingedHorseWritingStudio.com; 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.

WingedHorseWritingStudio.com; also on Facebook



Creating Space

Creating Space


So much writing advice talks about mapping and outlining and following a proven formula and writing for the reader and (for fiction) completing extensive character questionnaires (Who are their friends? What do they eat? What are their politics? Where did they go to school?).

But aside from all this worrying and planning and stressing and looking outside yourself, are you creating space for ideas? They need to be invited in. They need a safe, nourishing place to land.

In her book Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, Natalie Goldberg reminds us that while writing takes a great deal of commitment (that sometimes we need to just “shut up and write”), “It also takes space—space to write and space to receive.”


She says:

This chapter is for my friend who calls me wondering when I’ll work on this book. I write a chapter and then go to the nursery to pick up zinnias for the garden. I write another chapter and go home and make soup. I know more but I don’t push it because there are things I don’t know that I want to come to me. I’m calling up understanding beyond myself. (p. 187)


How do you make space to receive understanding that is beyond your conscious mind, the mind that plots and plans and worries about publishing?


I mostly receive ideas and questions and clarity in three ways:


  • From dreams (I will ask a question before going to bed, and my subconscious will often throw me tidbits disguised in metaphor.)


  • From time spent in the barn where my horses live. The peace I find there calms both my mind and my heart. Understanding often comes to me on the ride home. (I keep notecards and a pen in the car and furiously jot down thoughts at red lights.)


  • From walks by the lake. When I lived in my beautiful hometown, Chicago, walking away from a frustrating writing session, driving to glorious Lake Michigan, and walking along its shore often put out the fire in my brain so that I was once again able to hear.



How do you make space?

You don’t? Well, then, how can you start?

Listening to music you don’t usually listen to? Reading an author you haven’t read before? Attending a reading or an art opening? Eating a new kind of food? Taking a walk in the woods?

Making soup?



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