Monday, March 28, 2011

Are Your Characters Real?

To a writer, this seems like an obvious question... Duh, no, they are characters, they are not real.

Well that's not what I am talking about. What I am asking is could your character exists in real life?

The answer to this question may not be as obvious. Some writers do use characters from real life, but unless it is a biography, there is some peril in doing so. I think we've all heard the stories about writers who asked permission to use a friend as a character, yet when the character showed up on the page, and the description wasn't as glowing as the friend thought it would be, it was a source of extreme irritation.

I try not to do that.

Though I may have borrowed an interesting characteristic from a friend once in a while, (without them knowing), I don't use enough so that they would recognize themselves. I blend them together.

So if your characters are not borrowed from real people, that means they are made up. They are inventions, and that's OK.

My question is, could they be real people?

If the answer is yes, then I think you probably have a believable character, but there is a flip side to that. Do you have an interesting character?

If you model your character after a person that you might meet everyday, that could have a chilling effect on your novel. There has to be something unique about that character that makes them interesting. But unless you are writing science fiction or fantasy, it cannot be so unique that the person literally could not exist.

It's like trying to come up with a new flavor of ice cream. You can add strawberry, to mango, or chocolate to vanilla, but adding roast beef to strawberry is probably not going to work out so well. Don't try to make them so unique that it doesn't work.

For instance I think it's highly unlikely that you could have a Geisha character that was also a heavyweight body builder. The two don't mix.

Keep your characters interesting. Don't make them too bland, but don't stretch the boundaries so far that they become impossible either. It's not easy, but it is a key attribute of great writers.

How about you? How do you stretch your characters but keep them real? Do you have any examples of ones that didn't work for you?


  1. Depends on what you mean by "could they be real people" -- could they function in modern life? do I believe I could meet someone like them on the street? What constitutes a "stretch" for you?

    >For instance I think it's highly unlikely that you could have a Geisha character that was also a heavyweight body builder. The two don't mix.

    Why not? Body builders can wear kimonos, dance, sing, host parties. Put on makeup.

    In what situation would it be perfectly reasonable to both body build and host parties in costume?


  2. Remind me not to be invited to one of your parties :D

    I think it is a stretch when two or more characteristics of a character don't match up for a "normal" person. However I do agree that what's "normal" varies widely.

    The only problem with moving too far from the normal "normal" is that you may limit your audience.

  3. Characterization is one of the things that I struggle most with. I can think up story outlines, and scenes, and twists, but when it comes to the characters that guide all those things, my story looses its momentum.

    I tend to use characters based on people I know in real life, it is the only way that I can write a believable character at the moment, and I hate the fact that not being able to describe the character properly puts the entire adventure that the character is going through on hold.

  4. I also take characteristics from different people around me (and myself) and put them into my characters. Who doesn't?
    I think that for me, whether or not they could exist doesn't seem like a big issue because, for me, my characters do exist. They are real people with real thoughts and feelings. Anybody agree?


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.