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Thursday, September 07, 2017

I’ve Gotta Be Me, She Said

by Dan Walsh, @DanWalshAuthor

Believe it or not, my column this month is about the Characters in our novels. In short, the idea of making them seem and even feel like real people to our readers. This is a major priority for me. I think with good reason.

Last month, I quoted one of my favorite writing quotes: “The secret to great fiction writing is to create characters readers care about, then do terrible things to them.” That article mainly focused on the second part. Today, I want to focus on the first, creating characters readers care about.

At present, my 18 novels on Amazon have received a total of 5,900 reviews (avg 4.6 Stars). I know this because my wife is doing my marketing now, and she just figured this out. One of the most consistent positive comments I get is: “Your characters are so real.” Or, “I feel like I really know these people.”

A few years ago, I did a survey sent out to 3,000 fiction readers, asking them to name the 3 most important things they look for in a novel (out of a list of 7 items). Know what the #1 answer was (it got the most #1 votes and was in everyone’s Top 3)? Characters you really care about.

I don’t have time here to give a lengthy set of instructions, so I’ll share one thing I do that, to me, may be the most important. That is, I let my characters react to what’s happening in the story the way they would if they were real people. Even if what they say or do changes or rearranges the plot. When I’m writing, much of the time I feel more like an invisible scribe, spying on my characters and jotting down the things they say and do.

It’s fair to say, as much as half the things that go on in my novels were not in my mind when I first created the synopsis for the story. One of the things I hate most when watching a TV show or movie, or reading a novel, is when a main character says or does something that seems totally forced, not at all in keeping with their personality (as revealed in the story so far).

I think what some writers do is start with the plot, then create 2D characters to populate their story. As the plot unfolds, they force their characters to say and do what’s needed for the scene to keep the plot intact and moving forward according to plan. I do have a main plot in my story and several key plot points in mind, but my goal is different. I want to create 3D characters then let them dictate all the details. And, if necessary, I will let them even change what I had in mind for the plot.

Because to me, once a main character becomes real (usually happens for me within the first 50-60 pages), I have to let them be who they are. Let them do and say exactly what they would if they were real people. Once they do become real to me, I go back and make any needed changes in those first 50-60 pages, so they seem like the same person throughout the book.

You might think this process must play havoc with the novel’s plot. But it doesn’t. I see these plot-changes-made-by-the-character as temporary setbacks. A tradeoff, so to speak to get the kind of characters readers really care about. I know where I need the story to go, and we’ll get there eventually. But not with 2D characters who say and do forced things real people would never say or do.

Well, that’s the idea. I’d love to hear how some of you handle the challenge of “Creating Characters Readers Really Care About.”


I’ve Gotta Be Me, She Said by @DanWalshAuthor on @NovelRocket #writing

Let your characters react to what’s happening in the story the way real people would @DanWalshAuthor @NovelRocket

I'm an invisible scribe, spying on my characters, jotting down what they say and do @DanWalshAuthor @NovelRocket


Unintended Consequences:
Jack and Rachel leave Culpepper for their long-awaited honeymoon trip, a driving tour through New England. On day three, they stop at a little bayside town in Cape Cod to visit Jack’s grandmother. After he gets called away to handle an emergency, Rachel stays and listens as Jack’s grandmother shares a remarkable story about how she and Jack’s grandfather met in the early days of World War 2. It’s a story filled with danger, decades-old family secrets, daring rescues and romance. Jack is named after his grandfather, and this story set the course and direction for Jack’s life to the present day. After hearing it, Rachel is amazed that anyone survived.

Dan Walsh is the bestselling author of 17 novels including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and When Night Comes. He has won 3 Carol Awards (finalist 6 times), 3 Selah Awards and 3 of his books have been finalists for RT Review’s Inspirational Book of the Year. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Word Weavers International, Dan writes fulltime in the Daytona Beach area. He and his wife Cindi have been married 40 years. You can find out more about his books or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or Pinterest from his website at


  1. Dan, I sincerely rejoice with you in your success. And thanks for this post.
    I have a related question: you say your main character becomes real to you in the first 50-60 pages. How much character-building do you do before you begin your story? How strong an idea do you have of the character(s) beforehand? There seems to be a difference of opinion among writers, some who do lengthy character studies and others who don't.

  2. Jan, I don't do character studies, but I get why writers who like to outline use them. What I do is really invest myself in the creation of the story. During this phase I'm building the story and getting to "know" the characters who play a major role. I keep working on the synopsis till the story is almost real to me. When I'm there, I start writing the book, with the level of "character awareness" I have then. But as the story fleshes out, and I let the characters develop along with it, they become much more real to me then they were when I started. Hope that makes sense.


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