Is your hero always some version of you?

is your hero always some version of you?Writers are inexorably attached to their characters.  And why shouldn’t they be?  To us, they are like our children.  We create them, nurture them and watch them grow until one day they can fly on their own as full-fledged people.  Even mean, nasty and unlovable characters are cherished by the writers who create them – go figure, mother’s love and all that.

However, if you are constantly using yourself as a model for your characters you may find yourself swimming in a sea of fictional clones that do no favor for your story.

Writers are supposed to write what they know

This old chestnut has been around forever.  And was in liberal use when I was a young writer, looking for usable advice on how to improve my writing and hone my skills.  Nine times out of ten the mentor would don a solemn look and utter, “Write what you know and then the rest will follow.”  To make matters worse, I actually believed them.  I have to say, I wasted a lot of years on that one.

And I’d wager that so have many other writers that came before and after me.  It is really confusing advice, especially to a writer who is younger and has little life experience.  What could they write about then if they had to write what they knew?  Themselves of course, their life, their family, the little spats between siblings.  And who then would become the obvious hero, you guessed it, the person writing the story.

While I agree that writers write more authoritatively on subjects and experiences they know, since the advent of newspapers, textbooks, history books, libraries, search engines and social media the door to any experience, lifestyle, culture, or historical event has been wide open for writers to walk through and ‘know.’

Otherwise how could anyone have ever written a science fiction story?  Was Isaac Asimov a space traveler and robot technician?  Or a detective novel? Was Raymond Chandler a hard-boiled private detective? Or a horror story?  Did Stephen King ever live in a hotel that was possessed by evil beings and had a boiler with a mind of its own?  Is JK Rowling a wizard in disguise? Of course not.

The greatest nation on Earth

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Imagination is the greatest nation on earth.  It is the place where all new and exciting things are born.  From the greatest inventions, technological advances, art and literature.  It’s what enables a seven-year-old to have his very own battleship in his backyard, and sent man into space, and inspired a small group of men to create the first democratic republic in history.  Surely, each of us has enough to create characters that aren’t carbon copies of ourselves?

Inspiration versus duplication

While many characters and perhaps most are based on or inspired by real people it’s not about recreating a real person down to the last detail but rather taking certain characteristics, manners of speech or funny little habits and weaving that into the characters you create.

Here’s a fun little drill:  Note an admirable quality about each member of your family.  Then do the same with their flaws. Use the first name of any close friend and the last name of another friend to create a name for your character.  Then choose a location you went to or lived in at some time in your life, whether it was a vacation spot, a town you lived in, your grandmother’s neighborhood or a place you attended a convention – that’s where your character lives.  Give your now named character, all the characteristics and flaws you previously noted and voila’ you now have the beginning of a character that you can flush out.  And while you used what you knew and took that to inspire you, you end up with a unique, and probably interesting character that could never be mistaken for a clone of yourself or your Aunt Mable.

For me, creating characters is one of the best parts of writing and fun too.  And sometimes the weirder the better.  And if you think your characters are fun and interesting, chances are, so will your readers.

How do you create characters?  Any tips you’d like to offer?  Feel free.

Writer Chick

Copyright 2013



Are Your Characters on Board?


I am a visual person and I find that using this type of cue enhances my writing.  For instance, if I want to write about a place I haven’t visited, I find pictures, movies or videos about that place and use them to ‘learn’ that location.

One of the best visual aids I’ve used when putting a story together is a character board.  I’ve always believed that before you sit down and type Chapter One you should have a firm grip on who your characters are and using character boards is an easy and effective way of doing this.

Creating a character board is simple – start by grabbing a stack of magazines and page through them, looking for your characters.  “Ah yes, that blonde in the toothpaste ad is perfect for Suzie Jones.  And that mutt chowing down on Purina is just the right sidekick for my hero, Joe.”

Clip out pictures of anything that relates to your characters – whether pictures of people, the cars they drive, the homes they live in, the bistros they frequent or the brand of poison they drink.  You don’t need to stop at pictures either, you can add ticket stubs, a favorite poem or quote, a piece of hair ribbon, whatever you feel represents the life and experiences of your characters.

Once you have collected the pictures, mementos and items you want to use, sort them by character.  You might find you have too much for some characters and not enough for others but don’t worry, the board, like your story will evolve over time.  You can add, change, or completely overhaul it whenever you feel the need.

Putting it Together

These are the general steps I follow:

  • On a large piece of poster board or bulletin board, plot out a section for each character.
  • At the top of each section, write the character’s name on a piece of paper and use that as a heading.
  • Assemble the pictures and items in a way that communicates your character to you, attaching them either with glue, tape or push pins.
  • If a character has a long lifespan in your story, use pictures and items that show her progressing in age and how her likes and dislikes change throughout her life.
  • Continue this process until you’ve got all your characters added and the entire board done.

If you have several major characters in your story, you may need two boards or one very large one—it’s your choice.  Make it as sparse or detailed as you like, it’s your character board, and the cues are for you and you alone to inspire your story and your characters.

Does it Work?

When you have finished, step back and look at your character board and ask yourself:

  • Is it a good representation of your characters?
  • Does it give you good visual cues that will facilitate your story and character development?
  • Does it make you smile because your characters now feel more alive, more real to you?

If the answer is yes, then you’re done.  If not, rework the board until it feels right to you.

Hang your completed character board over your desk or in a prominent place in your writing space where you can easily see it, while writing.  Not only will it help you keep your characters firmly in your mind, but it will also inspire you to continue writing their story and keep your characters on board.

How about you? Do you have a technique that you use to make your characters more real? Share it in the comments.

Writer Chick

Copyright 2013