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Writers on Writing: Selected Quotations


My characters write my stories for me. They tell me what they want, and I tell them to get it, and I follow as they run, working at my typing as they rush to their destiny. Ray Bradbury

I try to get the right people assembled, give them right-sounding names, and then I’m off and running. Elmore Leonard

The writer, like a good actor, is able to get under the skin of the character and play the part. Jack Higgins

You are a minor god breathing life into your characters. If a character does something that is politically incorrect, then you have to let them. Susan Isaacs

I think that the main characters always have to exist somewhere within the writer. I might conceivably draw secondary characters from acquaintances, but they’re never the motive force of a book. Graham Greene

Some (characters) come from real life….If I explained how that is sometimes done, it would be a handbook for libel lawyers. Ernest Hemingway

If you can’t create characters that are vivid in the reader’s imagination, you can’t create a damn good novel. Characters are to a novelist what lumber is to a carpenter and what bricks are to a bricklayer. Characters are the stuff out of which a novel is constructed. James N. Fry

Characters in fiction are mostly empty canvas. I have known many who have passed through their stories without noses, or heads to hold them; others have lacked bodies altogether, exercised no natural functions, possessed some thoughts, a few emotions, but no psychologies, and apparently made love without the necessary organs. William Gass

Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Philip Roth

Fiction is characters, and you have to have them firmly in mind before you write. You have to imagine them doing things you don’t actually have them do in your novel. You begin by copying people you know, and later you invent characters and get deeper into them than anyone you can ever know. John Gardner

…the most difficult hurdle any writer must get over in attempting to create character, is that of the dull and ordinary man and woman. No matter how dull or ordinary they may be, they must not bore the reader. Characterization of them, therefore, poses the question of how to give them their true characteristics of dullness and ordinariness and yet interest the reader in what happens to them in their fate, as it were. I have often thought that the capacity to do this is one of the best measures of a good writer. Christopher LaFarge

Avoid the strange, the extremely unusual, the bizarre character. The character that most people like to read about is the known type, but he is also an individual within the type. Elwood Maren

Ruling sympathy out, a novel must contain at least one magnetic character. At least one character capable of keying the reader up, as though he (the reader) were in the presence of someone he is in love with. This is not a rule of salesmanship but a pre-essential of interest. Elizabeth Bowen

Characters in a novel or play who act all the way through exactly as one expects them to…..makes us recognize that they are artificially composed. Andre Gide

I should say that the practice of drawing characters from actual models is not only universal but necessary. I do not see why any writer should be ashamed to acknowledge it. W. Somerset Maugham

Any story has major and minor characters. And for me, whether they’re major or minor has little to do with how much they are on stage. It has to do with whether they develop and change over the course of the story. Christopher Tilghman

Characters take on like by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page. Eudora Welty

You often have characters who are put upon, who have troubles, but the writer has not transformed that into a dynamic yearning in the character and that’s what I find missing. If you do not build your fiction around human yearning, there’s no way it’s going to be successful. Robert Olen Butler

It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer….Any real character is always your portrait of someone you have seen and you cannot play tricks with—any change you make will be a false note, and that the identifying details are by definition the details that matter. James Gould Cozzens

Whenever characters get out of control, it’s a sign that the work has not arisen from genuine inspiration. One doesn’t go on then. Alberto Moravia

For characters to be read, they must be in conflict. That is where the action comes in. The novelist creates conflict from every premise. Sonia Levitin

I think that a writer who can put three characters in a scene and can write several lines of dialogue without attribution and without confusing the reader has paid attention to his characters and has invested in them qualities that no amount of descriptive, expository prose can convey. K. C. Constantine

In practice I prefer to draw a character from someone I hardly know. Norman Mailer

He (Sinclair Lewis) said he needed to know everything about the characters and the setting of a story before he started writing. Maps of imaginary towns sketched in pencil, floor plans of houses, life histories, word portraits in the most painstaking detail, characterizing anecdotes, breeds of pets, dishes served at table, names of eccentric specimen shrubs that a particular character would be sure to have planted outside his house—there was an astonishing wealth of groundwork in those loose-leaf notebooks. Most of the material would never be mined. John Hersey

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com