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Building Character.

April 27, 2012

I would like to pose a question if I may. How can your characters be fully realized 3 dimensional beings if you their creator do not have any life experiences?

Now, I am not saying that you cannot create compelling characters if you have not trekked through Nepal or sailed the Pacific ocean on a raft. It is my opinion that in order to give your characters depth and reality you must breathe life into them. Specifically your life. Rather, your life experiences since anyone and anything you come into contact or do with forms an experience that can be applied to your writing.

In high school I took a photography class. The teacher made us listen to Suzanne Vega’s song: Tom’s Diner. It was a demonstration of observation. How the narrator of the song (ultimately Suzanne) studied fellow customers and staff at a diner. And in the classic 1964 children’s book: Harriet the Spy, Harriet engages in a game where people in the diner/library/etc. are given new identities and backgrounds based on their appearance and actions.

What’s the point of that last paragraph? Observation leading to creation. First we observe something (people in a diner perhaps or a messy break up or any little thing), then we create out of it (BAM! Now we’re writing!)

In order to give  my characters some heft I tend to gather personalities, habits, physical attributes and write them down in a notebook or (hopefully) retain them in my mind. I also try to interact with people and be open to new experiences, to learn. I think that if you close yourself off from learning and experiencing. I offer the following two quotes from Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”


“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”

I feel that these quotes demonstrate a belief in going out into the world, learning and experiencing in an effort to become a broad-minded person, a person with a life lived building those experiences.

And when I or you turn my/your hand to writing (or really any other kind of artistic endeavor) a richness unfolds. Depth becomes tangible. I think that is what we want to do: Create a work that is as living and breathing as the real world that surrounds us. In order to do that, we must engage in life.

What do you think? Am I way off base here?

Thanks for reading!



From → Writing

  1. You raise a really good point. You know how I feel about travel. It builds character, strength. Experiencing different cultures teaches us about the different levels of life. But if someone has sat in their cushy corner in Pretty Village all their life it doesn’t necessarily render them incapable of artistic passion.
    Travel, experience – it just exacerbates the creativity within us.

    • Very true. Even if you stay in the corner of Pretty Village, you are bound to have some manner of experience.

    • I forgot to say, Thank you for visiting today. I appreciate your comment.

  2. What happened to my comment..
    anyways loved your post so will comment again :)
    I totally agree with order to give life to character there has to be a base of truth..i mean someone somewher we have seen or met or our own life ..they give another dimension to all the characters however ficticious..
    this is an excellent tip and write up Steven :)

    • Oh my, it sounds like your first comment was sucked into the void. I hate it when that happens. Thanks for dropping by and reading today’s post!

  3. I think reading and tv/movies play a certain part in creating some of these characters. I mean, surely most of us don’t know what it’s like to be murderer or anything of the sort. But, through reading other books, television–news, shows– and movies, it helps us to get into the mindset of these people we write about.

    Also, when I create characters, I do my best to get into that character’s head the best I can by thinking, “If it were me, how would I do it? What would I do? What mistakes would I make?”

    I hope this helps! Great post!

    • Of course external factors influence characters. I can point to a dozen different characters and list what write, filmmaker or artist influenced them. You are absolutely correct that we need other sources to fill in the gaps of our tangible experiences. I think engaging in the pursuit of knowledge qualifies as seeking life experiences. It is akin to knowledge gained in the classroom versus knowledge gained from practical experience. Do you hire someone with a 4 year degree or someone with 4 years experience? This example does not work in every situation. As long as we are open to learning, experiencing, growing, I think we as writers will grow and expand and refine everything we bring to the write work we produce.

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