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Friday, July 22, 2011


It should be easy to make a story lifelike, with characters that feel real and fictional worlds so rich they make a reader want to step right in.

After all, in our individual lives, we have adventures, big and small; dramatic moments that change our lives; funny moments we chuckle about; people we love; people we hate. But somehow, more often than we’d like, those funny/poignant/significant moments that make a story pop don’t seem to translate onto the written page.

Why not?

Well, there are a number of reasons why it can be challenging to translate lived moments into story moments. I’ll discuss some common situations I encountered while I was writing my latest romance novel, Learning Curves and discuss how I overcame those challenges to create a sexy contemporary that combined elements of my own experiences as a graduate student but recast them to suit the needs of my story.


You’re on the airplane. You introduce yourself to your seatmate. “Glad to meet you,” they say, shaking your hand. “What do you do?” “I’m a writer.” “Really? Well, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve always thought my job as a dentist/rodeo clown/medical transcriptionist would make a great story.”

So, what is it about your new neighbour’s enthusiasm that has you blanching and praying for a swift, merciful plane crash?

Well, for me, it’s the fact that writing fiction isn’t like writing a documentary.
A lot of us equate having a story that uses ‘real life details’ – whether their own or borrowed from someone else - with a Mutual of Omaha nature special, where every single fact has to be relayed in stentorian voice over, without considering how it impacts the flow, shape or pacing of the story they’re writing.

In other words, when you consider adding real life details into a book, no matter how well you know a subject and its minutiae, documentary fact alone doesn’t make a story. They’re one of the building blocks but by themselves, all they create is a dry framework. To make a story come to life, the documentary facts need to matter to the character, to the outcome of the story or to the emotional journey of the protagonist or they’re simply filler.

For instance, when I created Leanne, the heroine of Learning Curves, I didn’t worry about describing every single detail of her life as a graduate student even though I’d lived it and could have prosed on and on about the funding and the reading and the essays and the marking and the...(you get the idea, right?)

Instead, I worked on conveying the overall atmosphere of student life (pressure, stress and not much money) while leaving many of the specifics to the reader’s imagination. Because it wasn’t the specific experience of marking a hundred assignments or doing research for a fifty page paper that mattered but how Leanne felt about her life as the story progresses and her relationship with the hero develops.

Leanne’s reality – that of a high-achieving career student determined to pursue her goals at all costs – is documented and factual and I drew on my experience to add small flourishes but more importantly, the facts form an important starting point and overall context for the character, from which she must grow.


Just as it’s important to create characters that are grounded and emotionally authentic, with credible motivation, you’ve also got to make sure that the world you’ve created for them to move around in is believable, too.

Real places create a great atmosphere and also help to further enrich your story world. They can also help deepen our understanding of the characters, by giving the reader subtle clues to decipher the setting and plot development.

I’m a visual person by nature. While I don’t go as far as some writers I know, who plaster their work surfaces with photographs, I do find visual inspiration helpful. I keep a file for each book I’m working on, where I store materials I think might be useful. I’m also a huge fan of maps, because they allow me to navigate consistently through my characters’ world.

You might try using journals, blog postings, memoirs or ephemera like postcards as a spark for subtle touches to your book. Whether you’re writing cowboys on the plains or an ex-pat in Paris, there are wonderful resources that will help you immerse yourself in your chosen setting and allow you to bring the world to life.


Finally, there’s a tendency as we’re writing to identify strongly with one character. We see ourselves in them and want them to succeed. That often leads to giving all of the real life facts – your likes, dislikes, experiences and mannerisms – to a single character, creating a fictional doppelganger who thinks like you do, reacts like you do and just plain well is you.

So, why shouldn’t a writer do that? Aren’t they interesting enough to be a character in their own book?

Well, no.

But that’s OK. Because neither am I. :-)

The reason you want to avoid this twinning is twofold. First off, it’s difficult to maintain over more than one book. Your readers will want to read about different characters in each of your books. Yes, having a consistent voice is important but the characters they encounter should be distinct and unique. If they all speak with your voice, they will quickly become repetitious.

Secondly, if you give all the best ‘real’ bits to one character and rely on generic characters to people the rest of the book, you end with a vibrant, lively character who plays to cardboard cutouts. That lopsided chemistry won’t endear you to readers.

The heroine in Learning Curves is a graduate student. When I wrote the first draft of this book, I was a graduate student. Leanne likes eighteenth century literature. I like eighteenth century literature. But Leanne isn’t me – she has opinions, experiences and outlooks that are diametrically opposed to mine.
I also made a conscious decision to share real life details with other characters, too. For instance, Brandon likes jazz, dances at the Foxe’s Den, which is the name of a male strip club I used to pass going downtown and his rehearsal space bears a striking resemblance to the dance studio I had to go past on my way to classes in undergrad. I didn’t recreate those elements in minute detail or belabour their existence. I included them because they helped bring Brandon into better focus and made him a better foil for Leanne and her own rich but imaginary backstory.

It’s that balance I was speaking of.

So, as a writer, your life and the lives of the people you meet and read about are inspiration for your fictional worlds. Use those details to enhance your story and your characters. Your manuscript will be richer, your charcters sharper and the overall shape of your story much more engrossing. Good luck!

Elyse Mady is the author of Learning Curves and The Debutante’s Dilemma, both with Carina Press. Upcoming books include Something So Right (September, 2011) and The White Swan Affair (2012). She teaches film and literature at the college level and blogs at You can also find her on Twitter at @elysemady.


Molly McLain said...

Lovely blog post, Elyse, and so very, very true. I too try to spread the wealth, so to speak, of my personal experience and preferences throughout my characters for the same reasons you've just explained. But that came after a hard lesson--I'd written a character who was the epitome of everything I wanted to be like myself and I absolutely fell in love with her. Then when it came to writing another heroine and I had to make her different...well, I simply didn't like her, because I couldn't identify with her. Every bit of her felt forced. At that point I realized it probably wasn't a good idea to put all of my eggs in one basket. :) A little late for the first story, but's never really too late to learn how to be a better writer, is it? :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Molly! And you can make room in that basket for my eggs, too, because spreading it around is still something I need to consciously work on LOL