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Independence Day

For July, we’re celebrating independent characters who drive fictional stories. We asked seven novelists how they develop unforgettable heroes and heroines.

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“Put [characters] in high-stakes situations, and never worry about whether they’re likeable.”
—Emma Donoghue, Frog Music

“I write journal entries in the voices of my characters, letting them talk extemporaneously on the page. Usually I stumble upon a character’s ‘true voice’ by doing so, and I also stumble upon the thing he or she cares most about. That thing often becomes the driving force of the story.”
—Susan Rebecca White, A Place at the Table

“I really immerse myself in a character by pretending to be that character, and I often use character profiles so I can really get to know the person whose life I mean to write. I want to know what it is like to move through the world as that character so I can better understand how they will move within a given story. I also try to understand my character beyond the story so that it seems like they are fully realized both on the page and off.”
—Roxanne Gay, An Untamed State

“Characters should have some contradictory impulses and shouldn’t be able to say and do what they want to when they want to. If things get too tidy, the story is creating the characters, which feels unnatural, as the characters should be creating the story with their actions and decisions.”
—James Scott, The Kept

 “We all tell stories about real people every day, which, if you think about it, shouldn’t be too different from telling stories about fictional people. I try to make sure I’m genuinely interested in my characters, like I want to gossip about them with the reader.”
—Maggie Shipstead, Astonish Me


“Probably the most important thing I have learned writing fiction is to not be in charge – the more real and insistent and independent [characters] are, the more they drive the story in ways that are real and honest and hard and sweet.”
—Brian Doyle, The Plover

 “Maternal instincts have no place in the writing of stories. Strength of character rises from only one source – hardship – so the worst thing a writer can do to her protagonist is protect her. Instead, a writer must unlatch the gates of hell and let the hounds pursue her.”
—Isla Morley, Above

Originally Published