Flesh and Blood from Pen and Paper

Every story needs characters; whether your characters are people, animals or inanimate objects (think Disney’s Cars), it takes believable characters to drive a story. A story may be plot-driven, but without 3 dimensional characters, the plot will fail. Who wants to listen to the woes of a flat, unbelievable heroine? Who’s going to turn the page to find out what happens to a character they can’t believe in, one who they don’t care about? The key to a good story is to get your readers to really care about what happens to your main characters, to believe on some level that they really exist and what happens to them matters. It is what will keep your readers coming back for more. How many people finished reading the first Harry Potter and needed to know what happened to Harry and his friends next? It wasn’t a want; they actually felt they needed to know. So how do you create flesh and blood out of paper and pen? For me, the first step is to have a story in mind that I want to tell and then populating it with characters. In order to create a believable character I have to get to know him or her. Some authors have conversations with their characters, playing both parts in their imaginations. Some authors have a formal interview with their characters. There is a quick and easy interview to start with at http://hubpages.com/hub/The-Character-Interview-as-a-Writing-Tool. Not everything that your character tells you will actually make it into the story; a lot of it will be back-story or motivation. One important thing to note here is that this system requires us to free write, to just let go and let the character’s personality take over, to not second guess or edit or even think consciously about what would sound better. The character needs to take over in order for us to know why they do what they do; why they act a certain way. We need to get into their heads, so they will get into ours. Finding out a character’s background will help us know what he or she likes and dislikes. It’s important to figure out how they grew up, what their challenges in life are, what drives them, what their goals and ambitions are. Again, a lot of this won’t actually end up being written into the story, but to make them believable we need to know how they would behave. Readers tend to be turned off to a character who behaves in a way that the reader sees as “uncharacteristic” of them. We wouldn’t have someone who loves dogs kick a dog out of his way; that would be uncharacteristic of him and the reader would lose faith in that character. I find that if I loosely base my characters on people I know or composites of characteristics of people I know, they tend to be more believable. I find things that I dislike about people and things that I like about people I know and combine them into a certain character. This is one of the reasons I call the stories I write “faction” not “fiction”; my stories are based on factual events that I have fictionalized and populated with my own characters, who are fictionalized versions of people I know, or composites of several people combined into one character. That’s what works for me. What works for you?

15 responses to “Flesh and Blood from Pen and Paper

  1. That is pretty much what I do, too, Darlene. I think it is quite common. It makes characters believable because they are based on real people you know.

  2. Thanks Darlene for sharing that. I’ve not thought about writing a story book but if I did that is very sound advise.

    Michael Berry
    “We all see and experience the world, not as it is, but as we are.”

  3. Great points on “uncharacteristic” behavior Darlene. I try to put myself into my character’s situation to see how I or anyone I know (basing a character upon) to see what the character would characteristcally experience and how they should or would react to it. Make sense?

    • Absolutely! We must stay true to who the character is. That is not to say that a character can’t change, or evolve, but if they do even that must be true to who the character was and is to become; there must be a catalyst for a drastic change in character, some traumatic event that caused such a dramatic change.

  4. Darlene, I think characters in every story is very important. Your emphasis on any writer to develop them with the story is timely. Thou, I haven’t written or authored a book. I do think you’re a creative writer without boundaries. Gathering from every article, that I read from what you have written. Great writers can not conform to a particular way of thinking. We must be very creative, to bring out the characters like in real life. Particularly, fiction is my worst stories to read. It must be noted imagination is not bad, however one must connect with people. As the people are your readers.


  5. Very cool posting! One thing I want to point out that I’ve noticed is choosing the RIGHT times to write your characters doing things out-of-character, 😉 When you meet a character for the first time at the beginning of a book, and you learn about them during the journey, you get a good profile of what kind of person they are. And the best stories usually involve one or more main characters growing in one or more ways by the end. Like you said, for someone who loves dogs to kick a dog out of the way seems on the outside to be extremely inconsistent. However, depending on how strong that love is and how important it is that they keep it throughout the story, kicking that dog could be the first small step in a long chain of growth into making a character something new, 🙂

    But it all depends on delivery and approach. A character is built as a dog lover, they kick a dog, but go back to petting it later without explaining that the kick was light and playful and not harmful, that’s a gross inconsistency. They kick the dog, and hate dogs after that, the author just fixed the problem, 😉

  6. I like to set an early situation or conflict that the character responds to with action and dialogue, so the reader comes to know that character through what he has been shown instead of just explaining the character. This gives the reader an early authentic experience with the character that can later be shaded with internal thoughts and explanations.

  7. Make the characters real and with a consistent manner of behavior, so that when something happens which causes them to act contrary, the reader realizes it, yet can sympathize. There are times we all act out of “character” under duress. The hero isn’t always perfect and the villain isn’t always pure evil. Humans emotions and motivations are complex, so add depth to make them real.

  8. What I’ve found helpful is to think of someone, preferably a friend or acquaintance, (or it could be a public figure or fictional character) whom you would like to assign that character’s part in a play, Try to imagine how that person would say what you want said.

  9. I am always so interested by authors who interview their characters or write bios. Maybe if I did that I would need fewer drafts. But I have a feeling it might also ruin the surprise.

  10. Thanks for this! So informative. I write character sheets for each character before I start my books so that I know each little quirk and mannerism about them.

  11. Thank you, Darlene. You may have given me a format I can use to get me off the starting blocks. I have the story…based on a lifetime of exciting personal experiences…but the hard part about basing your “faction” on your own actual experiences is keeping the main character (me) interesting. I’ve outlined the story with a series of chronilogical events…but I am needing a powerful link…of course, it has to be the characters…I can see now that I need to maybe give the stories more depth by giving “me” more fictional characteristics …and maybe introduce one or two quite different people that occur throughout the narrative…maybe even take over as the “main” character. Anyway, you’ve got me thinking…and for this I thank you.


  12. First, thank you for posting this topic. And thank you for the interviewing tool. I’m going to use that with my current project. When writing my last book, I wrote a biography for the main characters.

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