Friday, June 17, 2011

When Your Characters Come Alive

Last week I gave a talk about writing a novel. Of course, there is little you can say in fifteen minutes, but I managed to give them the highlights of my experiences and provided a two-page handout covering the basics. I've thought about that talk since and realized I forgot to tell them about what happens when fictional characters come alive.

That reminded me of an email I received not long ago that said, "I find myself thinking about the characters in your book even after I've set it down for the night." That is music to a writer's ears.

For me, the characters became real so gradually, I can't say exactly when it happened. Early on in the writing of my first novel, Where Love Once Lived, I would sometimes go to the fictional biography I had written for each major character just to remind myself about something distinguishing about the character. I don't know when, but at a certain point in the writing, I quit doing that. In addition,  the biography was no longer useful because the characters grew beyond it. But it didn't matter. By then, I knew them intimately.

Another thing I forgot to tell the group was that a writer has to maintain control of the characters. They tend to come to life on their own and they change as you write. That's good, but you can't let a character do anything to mess up the story. No matter how much you like a character, don't give him or her full rein.

In my second book, The Vengeance Squad, which should be available soon, the main character is a young college professor. I needed to partner him with an older, street smart character. So, I dreamed up a student in his mid-forties who had been in the military as well as prison, and who was now in a wheelchair.

At first, my writing instructor, Bonnie Hearn Hill, loved this guy. But, soon, she was saying he was taking over. She reminded me my main character had to take charge.

I had the same problem with Liz, the book mobile Librarian in Where Love Once Lived. All my readers love her. She says what she thinks, and gets into everyone's business. It was easier to control her because there were two stronger main characters. By the way, Liz is in The Vengeance Squad, too. No use wasting a good character.

My blog is read by readers and writers of Christian fiction. I would love to hear from writers who had similar experiences with characters. Readers, tell me your favorite characters, either in Where Love Once Lived or another book.


  1. This was a great article, Sidney. I enjoyed it. I understand what you mean about getting to know your characters intimately, so well that you know their next move, so well that you know what they're feeling. Once, before I began writing, I had a few things planned out in my outline that I wanted my character to do but I dumped the ideas when I got to know my character. I realized that it wasn't something she would do after all. Interesting, huh?

  2. Thank you, Linda. I'm glad to hear you have had similar experiences with characters.