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The Book Characters Are Not Real Life People

Afternoon sun in the trees.

When I critique characters from someone’s story, saying that their actions make no sense, I often hear: “Well that’s what’s it like in real life.” On the other hand, people who tell me that often realize their story characters really don’t work very well, and they ask me: “How do you do that? How do you make that character believable with one sentence only?”

This time I won’t talk about making the story character believable with one sentence only; I’ll talk about book (or story) characters not being real life people. The tree pictures have nothing to do with this, I just thought they looked pretty.

I can see these trees from my window.

So, once again: the book characters are not real life characters. You might know this really interesting guy who always wears two neckties at the same time, and be clueless as to why he does that; that’s life. But if your protagonist (or any other book character) acts like that, you must state his reason for doing it, or at least acknowledge that nobody knows why he does it and nobody ever finds out. You can’t just leave it be. Otherwise that character won’t be believable, and you will appear a writer who can’t define their own characters well.

While it’s impossible to define a tree, it’s necessary to define your story character.

If book characters are not real life characters, what are they? They’re constructs. That’s why you have to make them so carefully. It can give you a lot of trouble, because if you create them well, they might refuse to do what you need them to do – they might tell you: “Wait a minute, there’s no reason for me to do that!’, and you would have to admit they were right. On the other hand, it can also give you a lot of freedom, because if you give them a good enough reason, and if that’s how you create the world you place them in, they’ll be able to do what a real life character never would. They will fly. They will move mountains. They will know when to reply with a witty comment and when to stay silent. And they will lead you, their own creator, to ideas and worlds you never thought you could come up with – because, even though they’re constructs when we look at them from our side, in their own worlds they’re real, and can guide you through them.

Once you’re done, you can just look at the pretty trees.

And when you get tired, they will take your hand and lead you to sit under a pretty tree, to daydream of the new adventures and the new worlds to come.


A writer, a reader, a dreamer. Dreaming myself into existence.

5 thoughts on “The Book Characters Are Not Real Life People

  1. It's funny because we want our characters to be believable, but that doesn't mean we can just assume that because someone we know has a certain quirk, our character can have the same quirk without a reason for it. Great post!


  2. Somebody smart (whose name I can't recall, because *I'm* not that smart) said, if you want facts, write non-fiction, if you want truth, write fiction.You are dead on that "just because it happened that way in real life" doesn't always work in fiction. Plus, every detail we as the writer reveals must have a purpose. If a character puts half & half in her breakfast cereal and skim milk in her morning coffee – WHY are we, the writer, telling the reader this? What do we want him/her to learn or infer from this – and are we conveying it?


  3. @Kelly: exactly! And thanks!@Beverly: very true. As it is often said: "I don't care what you had for breakfast." So if a writer says something about the character's breakfast, it better reveals something important about that character, otherwise why mentioning something so trivial at all?


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