The Characters Within

04 Aug

You talk about your characters as they were real people.

Two people said this to me recently, both in one day. Each had asked what my manuscript was about and, as always, I was thrilled to have an audience. I was so engrossed in talking about the individuals in my book, about the personas I’d created and lived with for the past few years, that the comment surprised me. Both times. It took a couple beats to register what they were saying. That these people I’ve grown to love are merely characters. They’re not real. But if they’re not real, why do they seem so authentic, I wondered.

It’s because, in a way, they are real. They’re every friend I’ve ever had. They’re every man I’ve ever dated. They’re my family, my co-workers, even my pets. My characters are the composites of all the people I’ve loved, all the people I’ve known, all the people that have had even the slightest impact on my life.

My heroine came from the women I know who have suffered a betrayal by the men they loved, only to move on to a happier place, find something or someone better, something they couldn’t imagine at the time. The emotions are raw and ragged and real because I saw their pain, empathized with their suffering, and I can also draw upon my own past and retrieve feelings of loss and disappointment.

The hero in my manuscript is all the great men I’ve known. My hero’s actions and behaviors and insights are a combination of things I’ve observed the men in my life do and say. The arrogant attitude of my self-absorbed antagonist is an amalgam of a certain narcissus I once knew and myself when I’m in a less than steller mood.

While I have, for the most part, heeded the advice of not using real people in my writings, I have included one person, an elderly man I pass on the sidewalk on my way to work. I don’t know his name and the only words we’ve exchanged is the occasional “good morning,” but his interesting appearance and reserved demeanor intrigued me to the point that I wrote him into my manuscript. It’s just a cameo appearance, but I like that he’s in there, this man I’ll never really know. This man who’ll never realize his persona has been captured in a book.

So, to the people who said, You talk about your characters as if they were real people, I say, You’re right. They are very real. Thank you for noticing.

Please join the conversation by hitting the comment button and telling us how you make your characters come alive.


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26 responses to “The Characters Within

  1. johannaharness

    August 4, 2011 at 5:40 AM

    I love that you’ve included a cameo for the guy you pass every day. I register details like that when I read and I enjoy the story more because of it.

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 6:56 AM

      Thanks Johanna.

  2. Kyrsten

    August 4, 2011 at 6:50 AM

    I think it is the ability of writers to capture those kinds of details – the ones other people pass through every day but don’t notice – that is part of the gift (and curse) of being a writer. It becomes part of the game you play with yourself to notice.

    Some days noticing can help me pull myself out of a funky mood because I become less aware of myself and more aware of others around me. My challenges move into a larger prospective and shrink.
    Great blog!

  3. Carley Ash

    August 4, 2011 at 6:55 AM

    Thanks Krysten. I agree about observation pulling us out of ourselves. I carry around a little black book to record the more fascinating things I hear and see.

  4. Janis McCurry

    August 4, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    I try to “get in their heads” in order to create what they say and do. In this world of detachment via using earplugs to listen to music, et al, while walking, thus avoiding eye contact and interaction with people, I mourn the loss of connection and observation. I use observation to discern body language and gauge how people are feeling or reacting. If all of us, not just writers, practiced observation, I believe there would be less miscommunication.

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 8:17 PM

      That’s a good point Janis. We do tend to check out with our music and phones and readers. Paul and I were out for a bike ride on the Greenbelt, and we came upon a group of three ladies out for a walk. Every one of them had a phone suctioned to their ear – but they were out walking “together.”

  5. Shawn Lamb

    August 4, 2011 at 7:37 AM

    I’ve been told I don’t have 1 child (biological) I have many children in my characters. In a sense that is true for every writer. We don’t only take parts from people we know, but characteristics we desire them to have. I used to sit at the mall with a cup of coffee and watch people. If a person or group captured my attention, in my mind, I’d make up a history or use what I saw to physically describe a character.

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 8:19 PM

      They are like our children. And I’m having a hard time kicking mine out of the fiction nest.

  6. Dean K Miller

    August 4, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    When I find my characters starting to get stuck, I’ll ask them to tell me how they are going to resolve their situation, or what their action plan is to move forward. Typically the answers come right away, usually in a different direction that I would’ve chosen.

    If they people in our fiction stories aren’t “real” to us, why would we include them in our work?

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 8:33 PM

      So true, Dean. Thank you.

  7. lynn mapp

    August 4, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    Carley, you’ve said something powerful. Your characters are real to you. You’ve breathed life into them. That is a gift.

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 8:19 PM

      Thank you Lynn.

  8. Liz Fredericks

    August 4, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    The different jobs I’ve had give me characters – a fairly large folder of men, women, children and animals who’ve captured me with their appearance, mannerisms, speech, or thoughts. My job titles have included pipe-mover, farm worker, motel maid, housecleaner, secretary, childcare worker, banker, executive assistant, professor, consultant, grantwriter, computer programmer and crime analyst. Not only can I draw upon the persona of a given job title, but the wonderful (and not so wonderful) people I’ve worked with. The blog you wrote a few weeks ago on using your day job in writing brought this point home.

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 8:21 PM

      Thanks Liz. What a great work history you have. So much to choose from when you develop your characters.

  9. Peggy Staggs

    August 4, 2011 at 8:36 AM

    I know what you’re saying. Not only do my heroes and heroines come from real life so do my villains. It’s satisfying to kill—or at least bring to justice—that person on paper. The good news is you won’t go to jail, and the better news is you could get paid for the dirty deed.

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 8:27 PM

      I once read that if we create characters based on the people we dislike, only to kill them off then we’ve created god in our own image.

      I love that. I think it was something I read by Anne Lamott, but I’m not certain.

  10. Patricia Yager Delagrange

    August 4, 2011 at 10:22 AM

    I really have to take your advice and pay more attention to the people around me when I’m outside the house. I think I spend too much time at my computer and not enough hours “out there” where “others” are. I know it sounds kind of lame, but I’ve been leading too reclusive a life, socked into my writing and blogging and such. I need to get OUT more! Thanks for this post.

    • Carley Ash

      August 4, 2011 at 8:31 PM

      Thank you Patricia. It does take effort to get out there and observe and interact, especially when we’re already busy.

  11. Tracy Wilson-Burns

    August 4, 2011 at 11:52 AM

    Like Dean, I also have conversations with my characters–asking them what I could do to make their lives more miserable (only temporarily, of course) or asking how they feel about a situation they’re in. When they talk back, they really come alive!

    Thanks for the fun post!

    • Tracy Wilson-Burns

      August 4, 2011 at 6:59 PM

      Of course, I try not to talk to my characters out loud or in public!

      • Carley Ash

        August 4, 2011 at 8:32 PM

        So glad you clarified that Tracy. 🙂

  12. Amity Grays

    August 5, 2011 at 5:27 AM

    Loved the post, Carley. Sounds like you have some interesting characters in your life.

  13. Carley Ash

    August 5, 2011 at 6:20 AM

    I certainly do. Thanks Amity. 🙂

  14. Patsy

    August 5, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    So many of my minor characters are created based on a person I know. And as you indicated, by the time I finish a story, these people are my friends. I know more about them than I do about people I’ve known for years. Surprises me sometimes how in my mind, I view my characters as real people – and yes, I do talk to them!

  15. Mary Vine

    August 6, 2011 at 6:30 PM

    What a beautiful description of your characters and how they are formed! So far, I’ve never talked to my characters, the h/h just talk to each other or others in the story. Nice read.

    • Carley Ash

      August 9, 2011 at 8:08 PM

      Thanks Mary.


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