Ask the editor: How to create authentic characters

Q: How do you write a first-person character whose voice doesn’t sound like the writer’s own? At some point does the character just take on his/her own life and you, the author, disappear? — J.W., Seattle

A: Many writers choose to write in a first-person POV because this voice comes naturally — it’s similar to writing in a journal or writing a blog entry. But, as J.W.’s question points out, when it comes to fiction writing, an author needs to make the sure the character can live and breathe on his or her own.

First of all, it’s not the end of the world if your character sounds a lot like you — as long as this character is real, engaging, and true to life. An author may want to avoid characters that resemble themselves for a couple reasons — for example, if you plan to write more than one book or story, you’ll want to diversify; also, you may want to distance yourself and your own life from your characters (a brief note to fiction writers: everyone will think it’s you, anyway, so don’t worry about this too much).

Here are a few exercises to help you bring your characters to life…

  • Take one scene and write it from several different POVs: first person (the “I” voice), second person (the “you”) voice, and third person (the “he/she” voice). This helps you get out of your own head and more fully into your character’s. You might also find that you prefer one of these POVs even more than the one you began with.
  • Consider some of your character’s opinions, and note where they’re similar to your own — is this necessary, or just convenient? That is, if you and your main character are both married, if you both hate beets, and if you both have German shepherds, perhaps you need to think outside the box a little. Every characteristic of your fictional characters should exist for a reason related to the story, not because it’s simple or easy to assign certain traits.
  • Finally, fill in the blanks below — and because this isn’t by any means a comprehensive list, add a few more categories of your own (favorite band, favorite ice cream, shoe size, etc.). This exercise will help you get to know your character as someone separate from yourself.
  • Name:
  • Nickname:
  • Age:
  • Gender:
  • Education:
  • Occupation:
  • Passion, if not same:
  • Finances:
  • Sexual orientation/status:
  • Sexual history:
  • Friends & enemies:
  • Family:
  • Hobbies:
  • Possessions:
  • Politics & religion:
  • Books & music:
  • Food:
  • Flaws:
  • Most noticeable feature / idiosyncrasy:

And I’d love to hear from you with some of the ways that you develop living, breathing characters — let me know! Happy writing.


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