The secret lives of characters


Characters in books are real people. They are born from the mind of an author who observes the people around them. Their inner writer, the always vigilant note taker, keeps an eye out for interesting personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, habits, sayings, mannerisms and everything in between.

Writers may copy and paste an entire real life personality into their fictional work and they can blend different aspects of real people to create a new character. This blending process can come together in minutes, a eureka moment if you like, or that character can evolve over a much longer period, decades maybe.

In  my experience good writers capture the essence of real people in order to give their readers relatable characters they can love or loathe, rally behind and empathise with.  In some respects writers are like vampires, either gorging on personalities whole sale or sucking the smallest drop of quirkyness from a stranger on a train for example.

There’s a line in U2’s The Fly that I love:

Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief

I myself cannibalise people I meet. My inner writer chops them up in readiness for a new character trait. Writers are also thieves, vampire thieves I guess you could say. Stealing implies not giving back, whereas writers borrow or copy in order to create something new.

Actually, writers are vampire chef thieves. They leech, borrow, copy, blend, cook and create.

If you think about it, writers are sneaky bastards.

Your characters are you.

Being a writer means you have a form of socially acceptable schizophrenia. You are you, but you’re also the milkman, the chef at your favourite scoff house, the moron at your workplace who mispronounces your name wrong every damn time, the person you watch on the bus or the train who fidgets a lot.

You are everyone around you.

My inner writer keeps records of personalities. He has stacks of boxes with weird labels like: Crazy people who talk funny, Quirky people seen in shops, Odd facial expressions, Mannerisms that don’t look normal, Normal people who stand out once you watch them long enough… and so on.

characterboxesWhat happens to all those characters before they’re born into words?

Are they languishing in bits and pieces in various boxes? Are they written up as fully fleshed out character profiles? Or are they ready to be set free in your fictional world?

Mine are filtered through each of these until they’re needed. I keep a folder in OneNote just for characters.

I like faces – photos help my imagination define or refine what a character looks like, how they talk and walk, how they carry themselves, what their history is and how and why they’ve reached that point in their lives.


My characters are a blend of the people I’ve met since I was a toddler to present day. From Auntie Doo-da (not really an auntie but a friend of my mum) who made funny noises at me when I was six, to the grey suited humourless guy I  worked with at a call center when I was a lost young adult trying to find my way in the world.

The inner writer takes snapshots of the personalities that surround us and shape us and our world. In the box they go. Waiting for that prompt when searching the crowds of Imaginationland for a face you know you’ve seen before but can’t quite recall it.

All those characters have secret lives. Many are yet undiscovered because they’re waiting for you, the writer, to open the right box and delve through those snapshots your inner writer has lovingly cared for.

Blog therapy in action.

When I started writing this post I wasn’t sure of the aim. I didn’t have a lesson or tale to tell. There was no set plan or a conclusion I wanted to reach. This post was more for me than you, dear blog reader. The cartoon graphic at the top, the boxes and the faces were put together after.

And the reason why I started this post was to type out what has been bothering me about my latest writing project. I needed to see words appear on the screen that would make sense of the tangled mess and junk inside my head.

The Range is finished. I’m waiting for a fabulous artist to wield her magic paint brush and create something wonderful for the book cover. In the meantime I’m working on the follow-up, The Holt. I wrote around 50k of it about a year ago, but set it aside to edit The Range.

The editing process was a long-winded (though surprisingly enjoyable) affair. The finished piece is draft seven. It was initially written primarily by pantsing my way through most of it, with no real aim other than see where the characters took the story.

During the editing stages I changed a lot of it for many reasons – grammar, sentence structure, pace, plot, flow, character enhancement, mechanics and so on.

I also realised I couldn’t tell the entire story with one book. It would need a minimum of three.

Yeah, yeah, trilogies are all the rage now, right?

I suppose that since The Holt and The Retreat have a much bigger story I could chop them in half…making a five parter…but, nah. I like three because I love reading big books with big stories.

I knew The Holt deserved more structure. To keep track of things I needed to plan each chapter with a few lines of description of where the story starts and what the conclusion will be at the end.

However, I didn’t want to plan every last detail because I enjoy watching my characters do their own thing.

So I came up with a simple system.


I knew where to start and where to end, who was doing what or going where. The “things happen” bit in the middle gave the characters room to dance.

Pleased that I would have the best of both world, planning and pantsing, I wrote a chapter guide with a few basic aims.


This is an actual screen shot of the chapter layout from The Holt. Jamie and Suzy have fairly simple instructions. How they carry them out is up to them so long as they get where I want them to be.

So what’s the problem?

The Range was easy to write because it was like turning the key in the toy soldiers back and watching him jiggle away. It needed lots of editing because I was making it up as I went along.

The Holt has structure and I know the plot inside and out. I’ve written 30k of new material on top of the existing 50k already done, and I’m slowly knitting the new stuff with the old stuff to key in with the new plot structure.

Now I’m having trouble trying to make sure the characters tow the line.

They need to get to the next finishing point.

What bothers me is letting them do what they like, to a certain extent (before I reel them in and rewrite certain scenes) and how that will have an impact on later events.

If Character X says or does something in Chapter 3 for example, I’ll need to remember that for a scene in Chapter 28. I know editing is part of writing, and I’ve both loved and loathed editing The Range, but I’m finding the flow of writing is stunted and happens in short bursts rather than sitting down and enjoying a few solid hours of creativity.

It’s like trying to think 1,872,288 steps ahead. Similar to a chess game I guess. If Character X kills Character Y and moves to that square over there, then Character Z will need to react in a certain way later on in order for Character X to explain/resolve/create further conflict etc.

At times I sit here, scratching my head and staring at the screen, thinking:

“Would he really say that? No. You’re an idiot. That’s not right. Later on I want him to do/say something else which means I’m already contradicting myself. Ack!”

Challenges, Dave, not problems!

I left this post alone over night (say “awwwww poor unloved post”) to simmer in my noggin wok because I felt I was being overly finicky and, well, really boring.

To liven things up a bit here’s some zombie humour.

zombiehumourI guess my challenge in writing a sequel to The Range is keeping that sense of adventure alive and finding a balance between the planning and the pantsing. But also not worrying too damn much about whether I make mistakes in what is still essentially a first draft.

On the drive home from work this afternoon I pondered if I’ve been over thinking the planning stage so much that it has impacted on my ability to let things flow.

Something that annoys the pants off me (that’s underpants for you Yankee folks out there!) when reading a novel is when the plot gears start grinding away at certain stages of the story.

It’s like the author it silently mocking me by saying:

“I know the hero has been fairly consistent up to this point but they’re about to do something very stupid because the plot needs them to. Please ensure all respect and admiration for this hero is dumped overboard for the remainder of the story.”

Don’t want any of those plot gear shenanigans in my stories, thank you kindly.

What would Elmore say?

I’ve had this image knocking about on my desktop for about a year now. I notice it every so often and open it up to remind myself why it’s there.

I like these rules. They’re simple and effective.


Exclamation points, can’t stand them myself. Talk about a lazy tool.

Wise words from Elmore there, I’m sure you’ll agree, right dear blog reader?

And finally…

As a zombie aficionado I’ve been contemplating buying this t-shirt from Amazon, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s suitable for wearing in public.


Too weird? Too gory? Scary, but in a good way? Reckon it’ll scare the kiddies? I don’t fancy having some random mum coming up to me saying: “Will you put your t-shirt away you disgusting piece of filth! It’s destroying my poor child’s innocence.”

Personally I love it.


Oh, and another thing…

On the subject of writers being sneaky bastards and studying the quirks of all humankind, remember this:

The next time you’re in a queue or chatting to someone at  a party, keep in mind there may be a writer watching you, taking notes, chopping you up and putting you in a box for safe keeping, just in case one day they need a character with a little slice of whatever makes you you.

6 thoughts on “The secret lives of characters

  1. I don’t think I could sit opposite you at dinner table if you were wearing that t-shirt, as I’m really squeamish about things when I’m eating, including blowflies and daddy-longlegs in the room, or any mention of insects, spiders, blood, snot, or puke!!!!!!!!!!!!! (sorry, my finger got stuck to the exclamation mark key).

    All by novels end up 90K words long. No idea why, but that’s how it is. That being said, I usually resolve my stories while leaving a very tiny hook in the closing lines — just in case …

    1. I’m not entirely convinced about that design. I look at it every so often because something draws me to it. Weird.

      For about a week now I’ve been really struggling with Chapter 3, reading it over and over, adding bits, deleting bits, working on the flow and so on. In the end I took some advice I’ve read in a few places: “when stuck make your characters have a conversation.”

      And yup, it worked like a dream. Conflict and flow back on track. Funny how you can get derailed when you over think things.

      1. Yes, I know all about over thinking sometimes. Also, with my novels, previous to the one I’ve recently finished, I used to keep footling with them until I ended up tidying them up too much, so they lost their original power and energy.

        I’ve not thought about using a conversation between your characters to get unstuck, but maybe that’s one thing I do without over thinking.

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