Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Saying for Writers #137 - Leslie Gordon Barnard

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.” — Leslie Gordon Barnard

Dixon says: Sometimes it is the inner contradictions of writing that make it so fascinating. Take a second look at the Barnard quotation. It says you cannot make fictional characters seem real to a reader until they become actual living people within your own mind.

That’s so true. You know you’ve got a good story when the characters wake you up in the middle of the night, when they whisper ideas in your ear while you’re driving in rush traffic, when they grab your well-plotted tale and drag it in a new directions because…well, because they have personalities and you’ve been trying to make them do things contrary to their natures.

Bringing your characters to life is difficult if you start with stereotypes or cardboard cut-outs. I prefer to experiment with flesh-and-blood beings. Here’s three ways you can do this:

1. Take a person you know and change his or her gender. Let’s say you take Jorge, a man who’s always getting into bar fights, and turn him into Joanne, a woman. In most cultures, the fairer sex is not expected to resolve problems with fisticuffs. If Joanne gets into a series of fistfights, what would be the consequences for her? As an alternative, what feminine wiles might she use to act out her aggression instead of punching people in the face? The more questions you ask yourself and the more choices you make, the more unique the character becomes – unrecognizable as being based on an actual person.

2. Take someone you know and “flip” his or her most distinctive personality trait. Let’s say Willard always manages to be out on the curb feeding a parking meter whenever it’s his turn to buy a round of drinks. Try leaving most characteristics the same – his intelligence, sharp poker skills, and clumsy ways with women – but change him from a miser into a philanthropist. Then put him into a scene and create situations where the well-being of innocent strangers conflicts with his personal wealth. But his girlfriend doesn’t understand the choices he makes. And he needs every available penny for a business (or charity) he’s about to found. Voila! You’ve created an interesting new character.

3. Take someone who stepped into your life in a quirky way, and “fill in the blanks” to create a complete character. Once I was sitting in the periodicals room of a public library, when a strangely dressed man sidled up to me. He leaned over and whispered: “There’s something you need to know – the FBI is rounding up redheads.” And he wandered away to share his delusions with other library patrons. That particular loon has appeared in a number of my stories. Sometimes he’s tall and gangly, sometimes short and plump, sometimes a woman, sometimes young, sometimes elderly. On occasion, he speaks the truth and nobody believes. These characters never look, sound or act like the other iterations, but they are all inspired by the same five seconds in that library.


  1. Great post, Dixon. I know exactly what you mean here. If my MC wasn't real to me, and she is very real, then I don't see how I could possibly write her stories. She has her own personality and can be a real pain at times. Now that I am working on her third book, I like to think we have a good working relationship, and yes, have even become friends. (Of course I'm talking about Kelli.)

  2. I must agree with Ken, a great post and you know what? Before reading this I never realised it's something I do when coming up with characters. But I do!
    It's great fun to take a person and pick him/her apart to add something to their personality and see where it takes them. On the other hand, a lot of the times my characters seem to have a mind of their own and not always follow my rules. They get into situations where I have to write them out of.

    Nice blog, great posts. You now have one more follower! Whoop!