“Granted, most of fiction’s great heroes are at least slightly crazy. . .”
-John Gardner

Here’s a short video about John Gardner


This is the first of a short series on characters in our writing.

Characters abound around us: the woman struggling with her three children at the supermarket, the young man riding his unicycle down your running path, the teenager screaming at her boyfriend at the mall, the older gentleman toddling around the coffee shop who seems to be friends everyone, or your waiter who has at least a dozen tattoos on his arms and legs.

We draw inspiration from these people and from our friends and families (though, of course, we camouflage our fictional characters enough so no one will recognize we are writing about Uncle Gustav).  And if we are really honest with ourselves, we also realize the basis for many of our characters is ourselves.

Elizabeth Lyon, author of A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, says, “To the extent that writers can figure out the emotional connection between their protagonists, stories, and themselves, I believe they can write with more power, greater honesty, and increased impact.”

No matter where our inspirations for our characters come from, though, we need to know them intimately.  Then we can let them become their true selves and do what they are supposed to do. One of the great joys of writing is to see our characters develop and “demand their say” – the moment when the character does or says something totally unexpected.

Alice Walker says she lives with her characters for months before she starts writing; and once she knows them well enough, she basically follows the characters around and takes down what they say and do. So how do you get to know your characters well?  Here are a couple of ways:

  • Make a list of things you would know (or want to know) about your best friend: Nickname, marital status, education level, clothing, type of car, hair color, eye color, secrets, relationships (spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, parents, children, etc.), favorite foods, obsessions, etc.  Now answer them all about your character.
  • What is your character’s back story?  Was she raised by loving parents?  Was he in a foster home most of his life?  Has he been married before?  Did her best friend die in a car wreck that was her fault?  Is his favorite brother autistic?  Touch on every point of your character’s past that adds to great understanding of who he or she is now.  Make a detailed list.

The next few posts will have more ideas for getting to know your characters better and using that information to incorporate multi-dimensional characters into your writing – and when enough is enough.

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Make the everyday daring!

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