How Authors Relate to Their Characters

I had the pleasure of hearing Donal Ryan, one of Ireland’s top novelists, speaking about his writing process. When he talked about how he creates his vivid characters, he quoted French novelist Olivier Adam, who claims that creating a character is like tuning in a radio. Once you’ve found the right frequency, all you have to do is listen. That’s how deep the relationship goes between authors and their characters.

Author Donal Ryan forms deep relationship with characters
Author Donal Ryan forms deep relationship with characters

For authors, characters are like their children. They know them as well, if not better than, the real people they love. While the end result of this relationship may be the same – characters that leap off the page – the ways authors create characters and relate to those characters differ. Here are the three main types of author-character relationship, which tend to be shaped by the author’s personality and writing process.

The guide: Like Adam and Ryan, authors who view their characters as a guide follow their lead. They’ll often claim the character is telling them what to say and they’ll write down their words, which must be a deeply exhilarating experience. They also see their characters appear before them like ghosts. These are the authors who mutter to themselves as they go about their daily business. They’ll start their books by writing down what the character tells them, and use the later drafts to make order out of chaos.

The puppet: This is the partnership approach to writing. Like a puppet master, the author breathes life into the skeleton of a character. While the character does take on a life and personality of their own, the author controls their actions, like the puppet master pulling the strings. Their approach to creating a character is still quite intuitive, but they want to bring structure to the process as well. So while they may think about what a character will do in a given situation, the author will make the final decision.

The construct: Authors who use this method build their characters from the ground up. They believe that writing a novel is like building a foundation; you can’t succeed without a foundation. They lay that foundation by doing character sketches, where they do profiles of the main characters in their books. They may also draw spider diagrams, showing how the characters are linked to each other, or draw detailed family trees. If you’re a logical, methodical person, this method will suit you. It’ll be a blueprint that you can use to move forward.

Which character relationship resonates most with you? I reckon I’m more of a puppet girl myself.

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3 thoughts on “How Authors Relate to Their Characters

  1. I imagine I’m in either the puppet or construct category, or perhaps a blend of the two. I tend to think about my writing in a “plot first, characters second” kind of way, outlining my stories in a way where the plot informs who the characters are and how they behave.

  2. I treat characters as strawmen, rhetorical figures, metonymies, or stand-ins; in any case, I make them as stereotypical as can be. Likewise, I hate reading fiction with non-stereotypical characters.

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