Bringing Characters to Life

Salman Rushdie

Lesson time 08:56 min

Think of your characters as real, dynamic people and work to understand the internal motivations that drive them.

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Topics include: Think of Your Characters as Real People · Consider a Character Biography · Understand Their Interior · Get to Know Their Exterior · Hear How They Speak


[MUSIC PLAYING] - People say that writing is a lonely occupation. But actually when your characters come to life, you feel you're not alone. You feel you're with these people. And they want you to tell their story. What I found always is that there's a certain moment in the preparation for a book when the character feels real to you. In other words, when you feel that they're alive. This is what I mean by starting to listen to them. It's as if they're talking to you, and you're talking back to them, and you're in a conversation. What do they need in order to be fully themselves, and in order to be exactly who they need to be at that point in the story? And I think, obviously, there's a sense in which this is nonsense. The character doesn't exist. And it's all in your head anyway. And obviously you're doing it all anyway. I just think it's a useful-- even if it's only a way of fooling yourself, you know, it's a way of thinking about what you're doing. You don't want to feel the writer pulling the strings all the time. You want to feel that the-- you know, the characters have a kind of independent existence. You know, you want to feel that Anna Karenina is herself and not just Tolstoy speaking through her, you know. You want to feel that the characters in The Color Purple are themselves with their own thoughts and feelings, and not just Alice Walker projecting her vision through them. You know, and so this idea of being in conversation with your characters is a way of helping you to create characters which don't look-- just feel like your puppets, you know. Which feel like they have an independent reality. And that's very pleasing to readers to feel that. You can write a character biography if that's what works for you. You don't have to, but if it works, do it. I mean, I write, in a much more haphazard way, notes for a character. Even, like, phrases they might use, repeated language that they have. I just will write down, like, a moment in their life that I think I must remember, because that's a significant thing that I need to make sure happens. This whole process of preparation is valuable and necessary in the same way as in a historical novel research about the historical period is valuable and necessary. But there's a point at which you have to put it aside. There's a point at which you have to say, OK, now I'm going to imagine it. And you don't need to be endlessly looking back at your biodata, you know, or your research. When you're actually doing the writing, you need to-- you need to feel you have it already within you. You know that stuff. And so you can just write it. You need to understand the interiority of the character in those terms of-- what has damaged them in their lives, you know? I mean, we are all, every human being, carrying some kind of damage. You know, and it can be a broken heart in a love affair. It can be that you feel your father didn't love you. We all have bruises, you know. We all-- ...

About the Instructor

To the delight of readers across the globe, Salman Rushdie’s genre-defying novels have brought surreal and magical realms to life for decades. Now the Booker Prize–winning author teaches you the art and craft of storytelling. Learn how to draw from your own experiences to build vivid worlds, authentic characters, and complex plots. There are extraordinary stories that only you can write—start sharing them.

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Salman Rushdie

Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie teaches you his techniques for crafting believable characters, vivid worlds, and spellbinding stories.

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