(This article originally appeared in the SCBWI-San Diego newsletter, Dec. 2013)
Turning Words into Flesh:
How Fiction Authors
Bring Characters to Life
By S. L. Lipson
In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion, carves his ideal woman out of ivory and falls in love with her image. But his kisses meet cold stone, not flesh. The goddess of love, taking pity upon him, brings his creation to life.
Like Pygmalion, we fiction authors carve out our characters and await the magic that turns them into real people for us—people so real that our readers will also feel as if they know them.
How does that magic present itself to you? What makes you realize that your new characters have become fully alive? Here’s what some of our esteemed YA and MG novelists say:
Ellen Hopkins: It really is when they talk to you, not only while you’re at your computer, but when you’re trying to concentrate on something else, or attempting to go to sleep. Sometimes they wake me up, insisting I’ve forgotten to write something very important.
Nikki Grimes: When my characters argue with me about the words I’m putting into their mouths, I know they have become their own persons! At that point, not only do they walk and talk, but they even tell me off. It’s quite hilarious!
Sharon Flake: My characters lead me like a balloon that is being carried away with the wind. Yes, at times I must get ahead of them and make a course correction. But mainly I write, rewrite and marvel at how much more gifted they are at telling stories than I am.
Heather Petty: For me, it’s when writing their dialogue and responses become intuitive. When I start to anticipate what they will say or not say, and how they will say it, like you can with a best friend or family member—that’s when I know I’ve finally brought them to life.
As for me, I know my characters have taken on lives of their own when they start writing their own songs and poetry, and I record “covers” of their original hits on my computer, and want to share their poetry with my students, who are their age.
Those who don’t write fiction might think we are all “hearing voices,” ready to be committed! And we are! Our commitment to those voices is what pulls readers into our worlds.