Skip to content

Let your characters write your novel for you!

I was determined to finish chapter 6 of my latest novel this morning. I sat down at my laptop and pulled up my stepsheet, the list of events that would occur in each chapter. All I knew from the list was that in this chapter, my protagonist, Ryn, would be coming to a major decision in the first scene, would be introduced to one of the other characters in the second and play poker with three of the other characters in the third. That was it. And these three scenes would make up about 3000 words.

Now this would seem daunting if I didn’t know I had written two other books using this same method and both have found homes with a publisher. The secret is to take the advice of James N. Frey, author of several terrific books on writing fiction, who says it’s invaluable to create extensive biographies of each of your important characters. Having done that for each of the inhabitants of my chapter, it took no time at all to pound out 3000 words. The hard work, you see, had already been done.

I had spent about two months creating characters and plotting out the events of the main plot and subplots before I wrote one word. During those two months, I had created extensive bios of each person who would make any significant contribution to the novel, answering a series of questions about each one. Frey recommends beginning with each character’s physiology, sociology, and psychology.

Physiology, what the person looks like, would seem to be straight-forward. But a character’s looks can often give a writer, not to mention her readers, a great deal of insight into the character’s psyche. Does he have a scar? How did it get it? Is he a hot-tempered brawler? Or is just clumsy and trips over his own big feet? Is she overweight? Why? Does she overeat from some hidden guilt or remorse? You can see how physical descriptions can bring to mind all kinds of possible plot lines.

Sociology refers to a character’s background (social status, early education and training, experiences) that shaped and formed him to make him who he is. Was he a natural athlete who was popular in school? Did he become arrogant because of it? Or was he an awkward nerdy person whose mother smothered him? Did he receive strict religious training that caused him to rebel against authority? Did his father drink and abuse his mother? Or were his parents pillars of the community? All these factors and many more contribute to a character’s psychology (why he does what he does), the product of his physiology and sociology. Sociology shapes psychology and psychology drives action.

Once I had a general idea of each character’s physiology, sociology, and psychology, I created more extensive bios by answering questions about each one, everything from “where does he live and how does he feel about living there?” to “what is his favorite food?” It’s amazing how answering these simple questions makes the character come alive in the writer’s mind and prompts plot lines and events. (I found this list of questions on the internet somewhere and found them very useful. I can provide a copy to anyone who is interested. Send me a message below.)

Now that the groundwork has been laid, I can sit down at the laptop and just start writing. The events unfold just as the characters would have them unfold, and each character’s authentic dialog sings. The characters do the writing for me. I just sit back and enjoy listening to them and watching what they do.



Published inadvice for writerscozy mysteriesmystery writingWriting


  1. First rate writing tips on characters, bios, and psychological build in characters. The huge thing is that this provides what is later …. ….all the motivation down the road in the story. ….whether good guys or bad. ….lovers or sinners. Please send me the list. I am procrastinating the beginning of a 5th book …. Sequel or new stand alone thing. Character may decide for me. Thank you D.M. from this, I presume, another Irish descendant.

    • dmobyrne dmobyrne

      Thanks, Timothy! I appreciate the compliments. I’ll send the list to your email address. Best of luck with that 5th book!


  2. Hello, DM. Lots of great ideas here. I am a fellow BOB author with a published memoir. But now I’m writing a novella which seems to be stuck in park. Please send me your list which may help me get things moving. Thanks!

    • dmobyrne dmobyrne

      Hi Martha,
      Stuck in park! What a great way to put it. Been there many times. I’ll send the list to your email. Hope it helps!

Comments are closed.