DO YOU KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS? Do you know yourself?

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, I did what most beginning writers do – I came up with a wild story idea, a “High Concept”, and then I outlined my “you-don’t-know-where-this-is-going” plot, and then I plugged in my characters who said words and took some pain.

Looking back, I realize now I was playing with Good Guy/Bad Guy action figures. They had simple motivations which I twisted to make my scenes happen. And I rationalized it all, hoping my script would hold together.

It did, in a superficial way. My 007 hero blindly walked into death traps. And why not? In the movies that happened all the time. No reason to change the recipe. Right?

Still, if it were me, I would have done some checking first. You would’ve too, and then avoided that mile deep tunnel where the villain lay-in-waiting. You and I would have pushed the button for Plan B – calling in 10,000 ninja reserves, which would have spared us that exhausting fight-to-the-finish with lava and fire all around.

Well, although I knew better, I stayed with the lava and fire, ‘cause I figured that’s what movie producers wanted.

Except they didn’t. At least not in my scripts. And they didn’t tell me my.

That left me scratching my head, ‘cause I was seeing wide screen sagas and they too had story holes. Really big ones. But those scripts turned into movies anyway. What was the difference between those scripts and mine?

The difference was, that the producer pitching the story and the producer buying the story were friends and big wheels in a business oozing with profits. Selling the script wasn’t about the script back then. Nobody reads scripts in Hollywood…except assistants. Making movies was about marketing commercial ideas. It was about agents and connections, fat lunches, easy casting, clout, and controlling distribution. And deals were made on golf courses when only a few people were needed to “green light” a film or novel. Most of the players were L.A. locals. It was a small, happy club.


Times have changes. Money is tight. And it’s cobbled together from all over the world with fifteen executive producers taking credit for making a movie happen.

Getting that first script sold or novel published still gets done today, with tried and true old fashion selling. But what’s being bought has changed. The low budget, independent pictures are much more personal, they are character driven, more niche oriented, a lot cheaper to make, and the buyers are now reading scripts. Even the fifteenth draft of your historical novel gets read…if enough people say it’s good and it gets to the right eyes. Those eyes are looking for the same thing they’ve always looked for – engaging  characters in an engaging story. And if they find one, and it’s yours, they want something more from you.

They want your passion. That’s what they’re selling. That’s what YOU’RE selling. They need to be convinced they have a winning widget and they’re hoping you can prove it.

How do you spark your passion to spark theirs? You have to BELIEVE in what you’ve written.

And to do that, you’ll need validation from a dozen readers telling you your work grabbed them. We’re now back to your original goal: writing a page-turner.

How do you do that? There’s a thousand books and blogs telling you how. I’ve got advice too. Here it is.

You engage the reader by populating your story with believable people; characters with wants and needs and fears and joys and love, and all that packaged inside a no-gap history you’ve neatly put together. If it’s real enough and full enough and consistent, you’ll write words that ring true and come closer to honing the craft of fiction.

Okay, these broad strokes you know. The next question goes deeper. How do I create characters who would pass for “real” at a cocktail party?

Well, there are a number of ways.  You can…

  • Base a character a someone you know.
  • Base a character on a combination of people you know.
  • Build a fictitious personality from scratch by fabricating a backstory from real life or imagined.

These three staring points have a single denominator – YOU, your personal history and all the things that make you tick. Ultimately, all human logic and behavior is up to YOU to explain and maintain in your stories. And it has be accurate.

How do you do that? Here’s how: KNOW THYSELF.

Think about this: In any real-life situation, could you possibly make a decision or carry out an action that is “unrealistic”? Absolutely not. No matter how crazy your behavior or reactions appear to be, in your own world every thought, every endeavor has a logical progression of reasoning.

You (or your characters) may do something really stupid, like speeding through pedestrian traffic or becoming a contestant on the new Fear Factor. Yet if you trace your logic, you’ll find a set of beliefs that assumes your actions will gain something wanted or needed. You also presume that your gain will be positive, even if it’s attempted suicide… or successful suicide… or cutting… or setting yourself up to be caught in an affair when you’re running for state governor or the presidency of the United States.

Go figure…

Yes! Go figure out WHY people do what they do. Do that by first asking yourself, “Who am I?” Why do I do what I do?

You are starting with YOU, because at core levels, we’re all very much alike with the same basic needs and drives. It’s our individualized concepts about those drives that make us unique. It’s our attitude about any given subject or action that shapes our personal behavior and makes us different. If you figure out what you are seeking and what you are avoiding, and then apply those motivations to your characters, you can build a realistic persona by shaping attitudes. And you shape attitudes by knowing the history of your characters, real or imagined.

Remember: Specific attitudes determine specific actions and reactions.


Next step: understand that external behavior rarely defines underlying intentions. A display of anger may be displaced frustration over something entirely different than what’s happening in your scene. (If this sounds like real-life, it is.)

A cruel act may be a call for help. A joke may be an insult. “Making love” maybe a form of domination. Advice may be manipulation. Lying may be coded truth.

It’s easy to write superficial characters where behaviors represent intentions. But that’s rarely the case within the lives we live. So it behooves us as sophisticated writers to dig deeper into the human psyche and reveal our complexities.

If you can do that, you are an artist.

If you can’t, or won’t, you will be forcing your characters to do implausible acts for the sake of the story. You will break the suspension of belief. You will lose the commitment of your audience, potential buyers, and your own interest in what you’ve written. You will lose your passion.

So again: know yourself! THAT is your homework as a writer. Ask the questions behind the questions to find the answers behind the answers. Peel the onion of human psyche. Keep asking, “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”

I promise, if you commit to the exploration of who you are, not only will you evolve as a writer, you’ll grow as a mom, a dad, son, daughter, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, friend. You’ll become kinder too, as you discover that SECRET hidden in plain sight everywhere.

You really ARE your brother’s keeper. We all are. And we all want to connect. So start connecting.


This post was originally published on Curiosity Quills.


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