Tag: non-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