Treating Your Characters as Real

by Nick Jaina
March 26, 2018

Over a year into writing a novel I can honestly say my characters finally feel real. I think of them now as specific people, with faults and attributes. They have their own will and can at times be stubborn and foolish. However good a job I am doing at writing this book, I at least have gotten to know some interesting people in my characters. It was scary at first to get to know them, and now it is a constant joy.

That transition is interesting because I don't remember a clear moment when the shift happened, when the characters went from amorphous repositories of my opinions to actual people who say things in their own distinctive way.

If we can get to that point eventually – even a year in – where the characters are real people, I think, why not just start there? Why not start our project fully believing that we are writing about a real world with real characters, even if we don't know their names or anything about them?

One of the most helpful things to my process has been sending chapters of my book to my friend Leslie and talking about the characters with her. She talks about them as though they are real people. "Why is James such a jerk?" "Why is Ian so closed-off?" This is so much more helpful than if she said, "Why are you writing this character this way?" This reminds me that writing is not the process of making mistakes it often seems like, it is a process of understanding. I want to know these characters. I want to reach out to them and listen.

This brings us back to the dialogue exercise from last week. The reason this exercise is so important is the same reason it is so difficult: It brings us face-to-face with our characters, where we learn real information about them. We get to know them as the real people they are.

This is the same whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction. In both cases you are learning about a world and telling a story about it. The story is unique to you and your perspective, the world they live in is real and much more expansive than you could ever get your arms around.

So I've been thinking of the writing process of my novel as though I'm shooting a documentary film. Every morning I open up a new document and do some dialogue exercises. It's like if I was on the road with a bunch of people and I just turned my camera on and observed them. Some days nothing interesting would happen. Then, out of nowhere, someone would confess their love to someone else, and I'd be glad my camera was rolling.

I wouldn't be a bad documentarian if I filmed a boring conversation. It happens. It would just be part of the hundreds of hours of footage that didn't end up telling the story I wanted to tell.

At the beginning of her writing classes, wandering poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes on the board, "Your life is a poem." She says we need to feel comfortable in that poem so when we open our journal it doesn't feel so scary to write that poem down.

Likewise, I believe we can benefit by looking to our characters as real people who are living across a divide. Our unfamiliarity with them is just a function of our separation. It does not make them any less real.