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Sep 18, 2013

Karen Gowen chats about Making Characters Come Alive: Guest Post

Posted by Wendy Ewurum  |  at  1:00 AM

Wendy asked me a compelling writing question that anyone who wants to write and sell fiction should know:
“As you know I enjoy reading your books very much and one of the reasons being that you have a very distinct sound for each of your characters. When you read you can almost hear the tone, etc of the speaker. I've read a couple of books recently where it’s clear that the writer is struggling with this and I thought you'd be the perfect person for me to ask for a blog post on hints and tips on how to get this. Especially since I'm I also finally started writing my book. I am reading and taking notes from the experts.”

I like how Wendy puts it, (especially how she compliments my writing lol). 
The essence of her question is how can I make my characters jump off the page?


Clearly it’s not done through long descriptive passages about their appearance, their personality traits, their likes and dislikes, their past thoughts and activities. This kind of writing would definitely fall into the “telling” category, and a good writer “shows” the essence of their characters through more immediate techniques, like dialogue. Not that this kind of telling isn’t occasionally helpful, but it should be smoothly incorporated into the narrative action. Never be like “Okay, now I’m going to explain about my character.”


Writing dialogue is a learned skill. One learns it first of all by listening to how people talk. I’ll bet if you are a
writer you are also a listener; and someone who has studied human behavior from the time you were very small. My mom used to chide me: “Karen, you need to interact more with people. Be friendlier. You just watch them like you’re analyzing them for a science experiment.”
Haha, she was right; no wonder I didn’t have many friends! From my youngest years, I was fascinated by how people talked and moved and expressed themselves. You might say I was studying to be a writer from the time I was a toddler. And I’ll bet most writers have done the same. It’s all there inside you—the knowledge that comes from a lifetime of observing how people look and interact and speak and move.

Practice and Polish

But getting it translated to the page can be tough. It takes skills. How do you get the skills? By writing. Write, write and write everything, always. Our current publishing opportunities, as wonderful as they are, can also be a detriment. Writers previously had to polish their craft endlessly before they had any hope of getting the attention of an editor and a publishing company. Now we can write the book, hire a copy editor and a cover designer, perhaps a formatter, click a few buttons and we are live on Kindle. Our book done ready to be downloaded.  One well-known self-published guru brags that he can get a novel out in three months, start to finish.

This ease and speed to publish tempts us to bypass the years of “practice” writing we’d have done in the old days of hard and difficult preparation for submitting endless queries. Not that I want to go back to that era, because I absolutely do not. I love all the possibilities for the writer today.
But it doesn’t change the fact that polishing one’s craft is still essential. Just like a musician needs hours and hours of practice to capture the notes on the page into meaningful interpretation, a writer must also spend hours practicing to get the nuances of conversation, dialogue and character development.


Besides writing, you’ve got to read. Reading teaches you how it’s done, and as you’re entertaining yourself with a good novel you are also soaking up the author’s skills and internalizing them. Even a bad book can be a teaching tool, as Wendy mentioned. When the characters don’t come off as real or true, you notice that something is “off.”

So there you have it: Show. Listen. Practice and Polish. Read. All fun things to do! No wonder being a writer is the best job in the world.

And following are a few of the quotes I love that keep me motivated:

“I experiment, and my wastebaskets are always very full of failed experiments.” –Kurt Vonnegut

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov

“You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.” –Jodie Piccoult

“Hurl yourself at goals above your head and bear the lacerations that come when you slip and make a fool of yourself. Try always, as long as you have breath in your body, to take the hard way–and work, work, work to build yourself into a rich, continually evolving entity.”  –Sylvia Plath

And my personal favorite:
“Sit in a chair and write. Ignore this thing they call writer’s block. Doctors don’t get doctor’s block; you mechanic doesn’t get mechanic’s block. If you want to write great stories, learn to write when you don’t feel like it. You have to write it poorly before you can write it well. So just be willing to write bad stories in order to learn to become better.”  –Brandon Sanderson

I am so glad I asked you that question karen because it got you here again. I love "virtually" being around you. Thank you so much and God bless you. I hope the readers will benefit greatly from this post, as did I.

Find Karen @: where she ismanaging editor; 
Coming Down the Mountain she posts about writing and publishing issues; 
karenjonesgowen.comher personal website.
All of Karens books are available on her blo or website.

For other Guest Posts which have been featured on this blog you can go HERE.

About the Author

Most know me as the author to Fabulosity Reads and in actual fact, that is the previous name of this blog. I have since then moved my books to a Wordpress self-hosted blog so that I can have a place to show a different side of me which I am equally passionate about and that is marketing and personal development. I hope you will love being here, watching me grow as I share and learn. My highest hope is that we will grown and learn together in all disciplines affecting our lives. I'd LUUURRRVE to hear from you, so don't be shy...


  1. Very informative. Bet that writer who can churn out a book in three months has a supportive wife who takes care of everything. Or no wife for that matter. ha ha :)

  2. Lovely to see the utterly fab KarenG here! And with pearls of wisdom too! I totally agree with them all. Getting characters to come alive through words is a total skill. Your piece has to shine and sparkle and this through hard work, graft, learning and patience. Take care

  3. I love that little collection of quotations from ever-inspiring Karen, and am writing this just to prove to myself that I don't have commentator's block. My comment would be lengthier were it not that the moonlight is glinting on the broken glass of my computer screen. We do our best.

  4. Wendy, thank you for inviting me once again to sit in your lovely guest chair (I especially like the green-- it is very calming and relaxing when under the spotlight).

  5. @Eve, I'm interviewing just such a writer next Wednesday, AJ Harmon. She has churned out a nine book series in less than a year.

    @Old Kitty, that's exactly what has me terrified with ,y writing.

    @Mise what amazes me is how you can be seeing moonlight at ,y midday. It's an amazing reality

    @ Now I know I've done we'll with te chair coz that exactly what you said the first time more than two years ago.

  6. Observe, then translate what you observe into words. Good advice.

  7. Thanks Wendy for giving space and time to Karen G. whom I've been following for some time. I will definitely be coming back to YOUR well done blog. And thank you Karen, you made me feel less guilty about all the reading I do instead of housework.

  8. For most of us it does take the practice, because it doesn't come natural.

  9. Well said Karen! The only way to keep our skills sharp is to use them. Everyone has bad writing days ...We still get out of bed wanting to write, needing to write because that is who we are. Even the worst day can fuel a writer for something better.

    Nice blog, will be back again :)

  10. Hi, Wendy & Karen,

    Good post. One of things I try to pay attention to is dialogue. While editing, I pay keen attention to conversations. If I start wondering if anybody would say this or that, I know it's time to change what I wrote before.

    I agree that practising is chief among the things writers should do to become better.

  11. "You might say I was studying to be a writer from the time I was a toddler"

    Well, I still am...

  12. I love Brandon Sanderson's quote. If I could write as many words as he does in a year I would be a very happy, happy writer.

  13. Wendy, That's so funny and kind of embarrassing that I said the same thing about the green chair before. Well, I've been known to repeat myself. Just ask my husband.

  14. Good advice Karen. Thanks for sharing these tips.


  15. This was a really great post. thank you everyone for stopping in. I trust it wont be the last,

  16. Great question and response! It does take lots of practice, and sometimes you have to do it wrong to see where/how you can make it right. :)

  17. Hi, Wendy,

    Nice to meet you.. Karen is certainly a treasure trove of information. Some wonderful quotes too! Nicely done, Karen.

    And she is so right... observation and practice are the keys to good writing. Also life experience... Get out there! Just don't sit behind your computer and let the days melt one into the next. Clearing out your mind is crucial to good writing...

  18. I'm working hard to really egt into the good writing habits myself Nicole and Michael. One day I must also be a treasure trove LOL

  19. "Also life experience... Get out there! Just don't sit behind your computer and let the days melt one into the next. Clearing out your mind is crucial to good writing..."

    Very well said, Michael!! Love it.

  20. Dear Karen, this is wonderful advice for all of us who want to be word-crafters. Those quotations are helpful also. I've always especially liked the one by Chekhov. That one line taught me the difference between showing and telling. Thanks for sharing these tips with us. Peace.


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