Friday, February 18, 2011

Emerging from the Imagination: Giving Your Characters a Life of their Own

It starts as young children. We have imaginary friends who we talk to and pretend are real. We go on imaginary adventures with them, we make up families for them, and we imagine where they go when they are not with us. This can be the birth of an author. We may not be aware of what we are doing at such a young age, but we are creating characters. Imaginary people who become real enough to us that we talk to them…and they talk to us. I recently posed a question to some authors asking them what was the funniest thing one of their characters had ever said to them was and the response was amazing! Our characters have minds of their own in our minds. They compliment, they insult, and they even refuse to do something we have written for them.

The power of imagination is an amazing thing to behold. Have you ever listened to a child have a conversation with someone who is not there? Not only does their voice change, but their whole demeanor can change as well…the way the hold their body, the tilt of their little head, the mannerisms they mimic…they become different people. These characters that live in our heads have lives of their own, take action on their own and provide us with dialog of their own. How many of you have had an argument with one of your characters? My guess would be just about all of you. In order for a character to be real to a reader, he or she needs to be real to the writer. Conversation must flow between character and writer like two old friends and when we stop writing for that character, for whatever reason, the character knocks on our minds and asks us what is wrong….why have we stopped writing for them? They become real to us and in our minds, can have their feelings hurt, can feel abandoned.

Sometimes, a character we never intended will walk into our story and take over. Someone we never intended to exist will hijack the story and run away with it. It isn’t planned, it’s not in our outline; what do we do then? Other times, a character will do something we do not expect. Again, it’s not in our plans, it’s not in our outline yet it happened. How can that happen? It is the author who is writing the story, right? Well, not really. We are so good at making up characters that they tend to write their own stories; the stories THEY want to tell. We are just along for the ride, recording their actions and words and putting our names on the cover.

So how do you know when a character is 3 dimensional enough to carry a story? They talk to us, they choose their own actions, they get into trouble on their own and expect us to get them out of it, they dig in their heels and refuse to do something we have written, they put words in our mouths so we can put words in theirs. They have a specific “voice” in our heads, they complain, they cajole, they weep, they argue, they whine, they suggest, they smack us over the head if we stop writing them. They take on a life of their own and become so real to us that we listen to them and write their story.
Guest blogger, Darlene Quinn is an author, speaker, fiction writer, media commentator, and retail expert. The first book in her Webs series, Webs of Power, won the 2009 Indie Excellence Book award – Fiction. Webs of Power, Twisted Webs and the prequel to Webs of Power, Webs of Fate (due out October 1, 2011) are available through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and directly from Emerald Book Company. She is currently working on the next installment of her Webs series, titled Unpredictable Webs. You can connect with Darlene on Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In and view her blog at

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  1. Sometimes I know a character is real when they do something I would never do and had never thought they would do.

  2. What a great reminder of how it all begins for so many writers. I didn't have imaginary friends as a child, but I remember telling stories that could go on and on and on until my family wanted to duct tape my mouth shut.

  3. Hi Darlene, and welcome! My favorite story in this regard is told by author Ruth Knafo Setton. She wrote her wonderful first novel, The Road to Fez, over a fifteen-year period. It was set in Morocco. She finally put it aside to pursue something completely different--this time, set in Texas. She got a couple chapters in and the strangest thing happened. This Moroccan family moved next door to her protagonist... Eventually she got the picture and went back to complete her first novel, and those of us who've read it are glad she did! Imagine, a character moving all the way from Morocco to Texas to deliver that message...

  4. What a wonderful and thought-provoking post! I don't remember my imaginary friend, Jimmy, but my parents do--he was my best buddy until I went to kindergarten.

    I am amazed and humbled by the workings of our minds, especially when we open up to its mysterise.

  5. This is a wonderful post. I know my characters are rich, living individuals when they write themselves, their own dialogue and decisions.

  6. I still have imaginary friends! Don't you?? :D

  7. That's what's so wonderful about writing. I never know what my characters will be up to!

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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