Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


What goes into creating characters

When I was 13, I began keeping a diary. But since I feared someone might read it, I invented a coded language to record whatever I needed to write about at that time. I don’t know what happened to the diary. But I like to think that whoever found it thought s/he had stumbled on a relic from a spaceship or another country because of the unfamiliar words.

The impulse to send myself messages took hold of me again in my early twenties, the start of a life-long practice of carrying on this conversation in multiple forms. Each morning, the first thing I do after I get up is record my dreams. At different points during the day, I’ll jot down comments about whatever is happening in my world. I also use this form to explore ideas or work out inner tensions. I would be lost without having this dialogue with myself.

But for writers, keeping a journal has ramifications beyond self-understanding. In order to write insightfully about characters we’re developing, we need some self-knowledge. Otherwise, it’s difficult to imagine our way into another person’s inner space. Since I’ve been practicing this way of deepening my insights into myself for so long, it’s much easier for me to tease out whatever dynamics might be impacting a character.

I’m thinking of 57-year-old Feather, one of the major characters in my novel Fling! She’s a visual artist (sculptor mainly) and leftover hippie from the ‘60s who travels to Mexico with her 90-year-old mother Bubbles. Both are totally different. And both also are very unlike me, their creator. But I still managed to imbue them with the essential qualities that make them stand out as individuals.

Dream content is another way journaling shapes me as a writer. Almost every morning, I have at least one—and often more—narratives to record. Dreams usually unfold as a story does, building towards a climax as well as a resolution. Therefore, I’m constantly tuned into the creative source in myself that likes to tell stories. Recording my dreams also puts me in touch with the great maker of dreams (whomever s/he may be!), a rich source of material for us all.

3 thoughts on “What goes into creating characters

  1. You are so right. We can’t create complex, believable characters without a certain level of self-awareness. I try to journal a few times a week and read up on a lot of psychology. Dreams are a huge source of ideas. My best stories have come from nightmares. Great advice!

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