On Characters Coming to Life

If there’s one thing I hope I have made clear in the ten years (!) I have been sharing writing advice here it’s that there are as many different ways to write as there are writers. If some writing advice doesn’t work for you, then ignore it, try something else.

Some writers plan, some writers wing it. Some writers compose their drafts in their head and only when they deem it to be perfect do they start typing words. Some writers do their first drafts with pen and paper (shudder). Some writers start at the end of their story and work backwards.1

We also conceive of what we do with a giddying array of different metaphors. Take for example this lovely piece, Where Character Come From, by Cory Doctorow. It’s wonderfully clear2 and Scott pointed it out because it rang so true for him.

“Yes,” Scott said, “that’s what I do.”

Here’s a sample:

As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters “catch,” they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.

“Oh,” I said. “That is not even slightly what it’s like for me.”

Though until I read Cory’s piece and discussed it with Scott I didn’t realise the following:

I can’t start writing unless the characters are already there.

For me there is no “catching” moment. Unless I know the main characters I cannot write a word. My characters never feel like puppets to me. Not ever. Even in clumsy drafts like this first draft of the opening chapter of Magic or Madness. It certainly reads like I’m a really bad puppet master. Yet even then, the pov character, Reason, was absolutely fully formed in my head. I was just struggling to get her down onto paper.

I wonder if this is a difference between writers who begin with ideas rather than with characters?

Almost every novel I have ever written has started with the voice. The first few thousand words of How To Ditch Your Fairy came pouring out of me while on deadline for another book. Those words, almost unaltered, form the third chapter of the final published book. The main character, Charlie, is exactly as she was on that first day she popped into my head.

The two exceptions are Liar and Team Human. As Team Human was a collaborative novel it departed from all my usual modes of writing and was its own JustineAndSarah thing. But even then those characters never felt like puppets, nor did I ever feel like I was putting words in their mouths.

With Liar I got the idea of writing a book from the point of view of a compulsive/pathological liar first. And had a few stabs at writing that went nowhere until Micah showed up. But even in those earlier attempts the pov character felt real, just not remotely interesting enough to keep writing about.

Confession: I have abandoned (killed?) gazillions of fully-formed characters because they bored me. Yeah, yeah, I know who am I to judge? But if they bored me then they were going to put my readers into comas. Not a great strategy for selling books.

And if a character ever felt like I was making her speak in a funny squeaky voice then no way would I be able to write her. Honestly, I can’t even imagine what that would feel like. Other than horrible.

What do I mean by “real” when I say my characters feel like real people?

I certainly don’t think they are real people. I am not one of those writers who gets confused between characters they’ve written and their real-life friends. To be honest, once I’m done with a book I start to forget everything I knew about them. When readers ask me questions about my books they usually know far more than I do seeing as they’ve read them more recently than I have.

In a weird way my characters feel alive to me only when I’m writing (about) them. When I think about Micah Wilkins now she’s like someone I used to know. Or, rather, like some character from a series I used to be obsessed with ages ago and haven’t thought about much since.

Cory has a metaphor for the whole process:

I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.

This, he says, is how we create characters:

This, I think, is what happens when you write. You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people. You start by telling your simulator that there’s a guy named Bob who’s on the run from the law, and the simulator dutifully creates a stick figure with a sign called ‘‘Bob’’ over his head and worried look on his face. You fill in the details as you write, dropping hints to your simulator about Bob, and so Bob gets more and more fleshed out.

It’s a very clear metaphor and one that I think will make a tonne of sense to many writers. It certainly did for Scott. But I find myself shaking my head. I see what he’s saying and I know I do very similar things but I don’t think about it like that. Cory’s metaphor does not work for me.

However, right now I don’t have a better one for the whole process of how I create characters. All I’ve got is: I just do it. Obviously, I need to think about it some more. Read other writers’ metaphors for describing the process. I’ll get back to you when I find a metaphor that works for me.

In the meantime I’d love to hear how youse lot think about creating characters.

  1. I’d love to try that last one but as I never have any idea how my books are going to end until I’ve read most of them I can’t see it working. []
  2. Cory really is a fabulous non-fiction writer. He’s about the only one who makes the complexities of copyright law clear to me. []


  1. Chelsea Pitcher on #

    This is such a fantastic post! I love reading about the different ways people create characters. I definitely lean more towards your way of drafting–the character’s voice has to be there before I can start on a project. Or, if I try to start just based on an idea, the characters seem hollow and forced, and I end up putting the project away until the voice (hopefully) appears.

    Thanks so much for posting this!

  2. Justine on #

    Chelsea: Thank you! I think you’re right, it’s definitely a continuum. And I’m sure we all land on different ends of it depending on what we’re writing. Not only are no two writers the same, no two books by the same writer are the same.

  3. Rachel on #

    “If some writing advice doesn’t work for you, then ignore it” might be some of the best writing advice out there. Not as an excuse to ignore any and all advice when people are trying to offer input, but, as you point out, there is no one correct way to write. I sometimes meet people at conferences who act like if you’re not doing things their way you’re doing it the wrong way and that mentality can be found in all walks of life, not just writing. It’s important to thoughtfully consider new ideas and make sure you’re not dismissing them, but it’s equally important to find what works for YOU.

  4. Justine on #

    Rachel: Yup, those who proclaim THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUE WAY when it comes to writing or any other creative process aren’t doing anyone any favours.

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