“Each character should have interests beyond the plot that will help you identify their emotional core. If characters have no interest beyond the pursuits of the plot’s goal, then they risk becoming lifeless vehicles to convey the plot.”
John Pipkin is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Establishing and Developing Convincing Characters in Narrative Fiction.” This course will give writers the chance to dive deeper into character development, as well as identify effective skills and strategies for creating dynamic characters that will carry the plot forward.
Scribe: Oftentimes writers will take inspiration from real-life events or personal experiences for their fiction; is this something you recommend writers also do for their characters, or is it better to build them from scratch?
John Pipkin: Actually, I don’t recommend basing fictional characters on real life characters. Drawing inspiration from real life characters can be useful if you are just making use of a particular habit or quirk or behavior, but basing an entire character on a real person is actually far more limiting than inspiring. The problem I’ve seen in student writing is that once they begin writing about a real person, they feel constrained by the absolute literal facts, and facts will get in the way of good fiction every time. This is true of historical fiction as well. Even though a historical novel sometimes needs to make use of real historical figures, you have to find the space in that character’s life where invention can take over. Otherwise there’s no room for fiction.
Scribe: In your own writing, do you notice characters changing in response to the novel, or is it more often the novel changing in response to the characters?
JP: Well, of course, both things happen. Bust most often, it’s the novel that changes because of the characters. If you develop strong characters, you won’t be able to make them do whatever you want, because they have their own personalities, which is good. But this also means that strong characters will begin to make their own decisions in response to the conflicts that you throw at them, and sometimes these decisions will take your novel in a different direction. But this is ideal, since you want your characters to drive the plot, so that the story is rising organically from who the characters are.
Scribe: What’s one consistent roadblock that you’ve seen writers run into when developing characters for narrative fiction?
JP: The biggest roadblock is failing to understand what your characters would rather be doing if you weren’t trying to make them do the things you want them to do in your novel. Each character should have interests beyond the plot that will help you identify their emotional core. If characters have no interest beyond the pursuits of the plot’s goal, then they risk becoming lifeless vehicles to convey the plot.
Scribe: In narrative fiction, there is usually a cast of characters introduced throughout the story; does the author need to know each and every character like the back of their hand, or is it okay to rely on a few fully fleshed out characters to drive the plot?
JP: I think you need to know each and every character fully. The minor characters are only minor characters because they are minor in the narrative, and because they are minor for the reader. But in the mind of every minor character, they are all the main characters in their own stories (just as we are). So if you want your minor characters to be authentic and convincing, even if they are only briefly present in the story, treat them with the same respect you would your major characters. Just realize that you’ll know a lot more about them than you’ll ever reveal.
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About the Instructor
John Pipkin‘s first novel, Woodsburner, was published to national acclaim by Doubleday in 2009. Woodsburner won the New York Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Massachusetts Center for the Book Novel Prize, and the Texas Institute of Letters Stephen Turner Prize for First Novel. His new historical novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. John was the Dobie Paisano Fellow at UT-Austin for the spring of 2011, and he recently returned from a three-week writing fellowship at the MacDowell Artist’s Colony in New Hampshire. Currently, John is the Writer-in-Residence at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and he also teaches at UT-Austin and in the Low-residency MFA Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.