The Craft: Do You Write Characters or Do You Write People?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

When you write fiction, do you write characters or do you write people? I mean do you write about and through a character or do you write about someone you once knew?

And when you write, say, an action scene…is it something you’re entirely making up in your head? Or is it based on something you once experienced?


I’ve done both. But lately, I’ve changed my thinking on the subject. I used to think, “Well, I’m writing fiction. So, I have to make things up. And that’s what I’ll do.” But what I’ve realized lately is that you have to take real-life action, real-life people and real-life settings and mask or clothe them in fiction. And when you do that you bring unprecedented depth and (dare I say it?) realism to your fiction.

One thing that got me thinking along that direction was a quote from Gabriel García Márquez:

If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told. Pablo Neruda has a line in a poem that says “God help me from inventing when I sing.” It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.

That quote is from 1981, not all that long ago! Anyway, Marquez’s point is that as a fiction writer, you shouldn’t purely be making things up. You should be taking your life and exoticising, fictionalizing, (romanticizing?) it a bit.

So how does this work in practice? Recently, I’ve created a character based on a good friend. And then sort of brought this friend and their moods and experiences into this fictionalized world. Then, all I have to think of is: how would T– react? And I know immediately what she’ll do, what happens next.

I’ve also done this in a scene. This scene involved a failed assassination. And I thought: “Wow! I have never experienced something like that! I have no idea where to begin.” I laughed, thinking about Christopher Lee and his explanation of how a man sounds when he’s stabbed. (He knew what he was talking about!). Then, I realized I had seen someone stabbed. Seriously. In high school, freshman year. And I realized I just had to call that up and write it down. And that’s what I did.

So, that’s character and plot. But you could do the same for setting. Take the famous example of Frank Herbert and Dune. What was his real-world example for Dune? Not the Sahara, not even the Mojave desert. Nope. Just the rather small Oregon dunes. Change it a bit, make them towering and cover a whole planet in them and you’ve got Arrakis.

There you have it: plot, character, setting. You can take things you’ve experienced, people you’ve known and places you’ve been and bring them into your fiction. So next time, when you sit down to write don’t think about “making something up.” Think about how you can meld your life experiences into the world you’re creating. That’s how you write bracing, vital fiction. Give it a shot.

Just a thought. Until next time,


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