Where characters come from, and where they go

My latest Locus column is "Where Characters Come From," and it advances a neurological theory for why fiction works, and where writers find their characters.

As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters ‘‘catch,’’ they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.

In some ways, this is even weirder. For a writer to trick himself into feeling emotional rapport for the imaginary people he himself invented seems dangerous, akin to a dealer who starts dipping into the product. Where does this sense of reality – this physical, limbic reaction to inconsequential non-events – spring from?

Where Characters Come From


  1. Characters come from keyboards. You can push them into screens. 

    Hence, all characters start as dust and die as bits.

  2. I’ve read a similar concept to this, put forward by Daniel Dennet and Douglas Hofstadter. But I think Cory’s is actually the most concise and intuitive explanation of it I’ve seen. Awesome work, a very interesting read!

  3. I’ve often wondered what happens to well-realized characters from canceled TV shows.  We’ve gained just a bit of familiarity with them (built a simulator for them?), and then [poof] they’re gone.  Is Mal out there, somewhere, roaming the verse?  Did Hank and Britt turn left, or right?  And what happened after they did?  Seems like these characters are still around, we just no longer have visibility into what they’re doing…

    1. They go to a planet where they are able to live free from the plotting and machinations of writers, and where they can plan their revenge…

    2.  There’s a web site that expores this very concept, Jose, including links, cross-overs, and discrepancies that relate to the actors that play these various roles.  It’s called Toobworld.

  4. I’ve been struggling with over-empathizing with my characters recently, and I think this article really explains why that can happen. And it can also explain how writers sometimes explain their characters gaining lives of their own–like we can predict our friend’s reaction to an event, we can predict a character’s, even if it contradicts our initial idea of what that character would have done. 

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