When a Character Comes to Life

Photo credit: Jaredd Craig – Unsplash

by Debbie Burke


Fiction writers play with imaginary friends whenever we create characters. We put them in a pickle and see what they do; pile insurmountable challenges on them; make them fall in and out of love; tie them to the railroad tracks and see how they free themselves. They become as close and familiar as our own family and friends.

We design how they look—short, tall, slender, heavyset, muscular, flabby. Choose the color of their skin, hair, and eyes. Grow a beard or mustache. Add scars, tattoos, piercings.

Some authors cut out photos from magazines to use as their models. Or they draw parallels to real-life actors, musicians, celebrities, or politicians in the news.

Others prefer to keep descriptions minimal. They paint a general picture but let the reader fill in the fine details.

I lean toward minimalist but have an image in my mind. Often that vision shifts in the course of a story because of plot needs.

The main character in my series, Tawny Lindholm, is a fiftyish recent widow. She’s smart but also naïve and too trusting because of her sheltered life in small-town Montana. As the story unfolded, I piled on more flaws that enhanced important parts of the plot and themes.

She’s far-sighted and can’t read small print without glasses—also a metaphor for her initial blindness to danger.

Her meniscus is torn, which hampers fleeing from bad guys.

I broke the poor woman’s finger (how cruel, right?), which caused arthritis and permanent swelling. That injury means she can’t remove her wedding ring and becomes part of her personality, tying in the theme of mourning and loyalty to her late husband. More importantly, that seemingly insignificant detail served as a key element in the plot, proving her innocence.

Have you ever experienced a character who shows up in real life, as if s/he had just stepped out of your computer screen? Recently, that’s happened twice to me in a couple of unlikely places.

First incident: my car needed new tires. The manager at Les Schwab was fiftyish,  dark hair, barrel-chested, and muscular. He wore a blue uniform with his name on the pocket, hands a little dirty from showing tires to customers and helping out in the shop. His brown eyes twinkled with an inside joke he couldn’t wait to share. Although we kidded around as he wrote up my tire purchase, he was professional and business-like.

I don’t remember his real name because, to me, he was Dwight, Tawny’s dead husband. Through the series, Dwight occasionally appears in her memories with a joke or snippet of conversation.

Waiting time to install new tires was two hours. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a free bag of popcorn—at Les Schwab stores, you hardly smell the rubber because the popcorn aroma greets you as soon as you walk in the door (popcorn and coffee have since been discontinued since COVID-19). I settled in at a tall table, pretended to read a magazine, and did what writers love to do—people-watch and eavesdrop.

For two hours, I watched the real-life Dwight interact with other patrons, tire busters, and people on the phone. He was patient and polite with cranky customers, and firm but even-tempered when screw-ups happened in the shop. That twinkle in his brown eyes never wavered.

Not only did his appearance and manner exactly match the Dwight of my imagination, so did his personality. It was eerie but also thrilling.

Second incident: This happened in February while vacationing in Florida. When I’m there, I attend Zumba classes and, over several years, have gotten to know a number of regulars. I’m happy to reconnect with them because they’re loyal fans of my thriller series, bringing copies for me to sign, inviting me to talk to their book clubs, and eagerly asking when the next book will be out. They are terrific supporters for whom I’m very grateful.

One morning, I spotted a new woman in class—tall, willowy, with long red hair in a ponytail and a bright smile.

Tawny, my protagonist, in the flesh.

The woman must have thought I was weird because, for the next hour, I watched her instead of the instructor. After class, we chatted about dancing. She felt intimidated because it was her first time but she was game and didn’t give up. Persistence and determination are two major personality traits Tawny has and this lady checked off those boxes. She was also friendly, open, spirited, and a good listener. Check off more boxes.

After several minutes of conversation, I worked up the courage to tell her I was a writer and explained I’d been staring at her because she looked like the heroine in my books. Instead of being creeped out by a crazy old lady Zumba stalker, she was excited. A dozen other people who’d read the series also noticed the resemblance, affirming, “Yes! She does look just like Tawny.”

Her real name is Kim, a massage therapist from Minnesota and she was eager to read about her alter ego.

In #1, Tawny receives a confusing new smartphone that she believes is a gift from her son. The Instrument of the Devil actually came from the villain who tampered with the device as part of a terrorist plot. Tawny blames herself for the phone’s peculiar behavior when, in fact, he rigged it to stalk her and eavesdrop.

At the next Zumba class, Kim had read the first few chapters and said, “I totally identify with her struggles with the smartphone.”

As do all of us born before 1990!

A few days later, she finished the book and said, “She’s so much like me it’s giving me chills.”

That comment gave me chills.

As authors, connecting with readers is our best reward. But connecting in real life with characters we thought only lived in our imaginations is a close second.

This gracious doppelganger agreed to pose for a photo. Heeeeere’s Tawny!

Kim AKA Tawny


A big thank you to Kim for being an inspiration. She’s also a great sport as I continue to make her life miserable in the next books, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.







TKZers: Has a character ever stepped out of your book into real life? What happened? Did their appearance match their personality? How were they different from what you envisioned?

This entry was posted in Character, character background, character descriptions, character development, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and BestThrillers.com. Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

21 thoughts on “When a Character Comes to Life

  1. Most of my characters are hodge-podge mixes of people I know. Rose, in my Mapleton series is a blend of both my grandmothers.
    I used to make frequent trips to the post office, both for my job and to mail in submissions, and the clerks got to know me. One begged to be in a book. He wanted to be a police detective. I told him I had an opening for a Chief of Police, and he accepted the job. It’s name-only, though because our meetings were very brief as I handed over packages.
    Another time, I gave my physical therapist a copy of one of my books. She later told me she had a neighbor with the same name as one of the creepy characters in my book, and she’d started thinking of him in a whole different way.

    • Thanks, Terry, for that fun anecdote about giving a job to your post office clerk.

      A young friend with special needs who’s an avid reader asked if she could be in my upcoming book, which is in the editing stage right now. Through the magic of find and replace, I re-christened an existing character as “Jessica,” a 12-year-old trying to train a rambunctious puppy as a search dog. She plays a pivotal role in solving the crime. I think the real Jessica will be happy with her namesake’s heroism.

    • I met author Toni Kelner, now Leigh Perry, via a Sisters in Crime newsletter. Her first mystery series set in Byerly, North Carolina, had just been bought. I live in NC, and my paternal name is “Byerly.” She lived near Boston at the time. I sent her a note of congratulations, mentioned my family’s history in NC dating back to before the Revolution, and asked her to be kind to the Byerly name. She freaked out because she thought she’d made up the name. It turned out she drove through Greensboro on the way to visiting NC family and saw the giant sign for Byerly Antiques on I-40. (No relation.) The name stuck in her brain.

      Anyway, one year, she was writing a short story set at a science fiction convention for an anthology, and I became her resource since I helped run a college-group con for many years. She wanted to use my name as a character as thanks, but I thought the coincidence of her Byerly series and my name would be jarring so she named the character after a pen name I used for writing fan fic. So, I was obscurely famous for about 5 seconds.

  2. Not exactly. But, my current WIP was first a play. I think I’ve mentioned that here at TKZ before. I wrote and directed the play in 2013. It actually turned out pretty well. We filled the auditorium to capacity on two successive evenings.

    Then, in about 2015 or 16, those characters began haunting me to put them in a novel. I was already working with an editor on my first three books (not novels). So, I talked to Dori about the play and gave her a synopsis. She agreed it could be a novel, so we are now in editing/revisions.

    My actors in the stage production were friends. So, (as you can imagine), when I began writing the novel, those were the people I saw in my head.

    One funny part of this is that my granddaughter had a main character part in the play…a snot-nosed, bratty teenager of fourteen with a giant chip on her shoulder. Let’s just say the part wasn’t a challenge for her. Whenever the character Joanie speaks in the novel, my granddaughter’s face is right in front of me. (Thankfully, she is now a young woman of twenty-three with a job and is doing well. The chip is dwindling, too.)

    My second current WIP (first draft stage) is about a woman with four children who thinks she will die tomorrow. When I picture her, I picture a tallish woman with long blond hair, faint freckles, and a permanent worried expression on her face.

    Whenever I’m out and about, I look for her. Haven’t seen her yet. Have any of you seen her? 🙂

  3. Deb, I think I saw her at the funeral home, shopping for caskets 🙂

    When your book comes out, I wonder if your granddaughter will recognize herself?

    • She’s a pretty smart cookie. I hope she recognizes herself and celebrates the fact that she grew up and out of a lot her angst.

      Do you have the name of that funeral home? I really need to make an appointment with her before tomorrow…

  4. The universe is weird, then it does something even weirder. Some call this a glitch in the matrix. Others a peak behind the curtain. But this curtain is behind the Wizard of Oz, not in front of him.

    I’ve seen and met characters although never a major one. I’ve had friends angry at me because a character wasn’t based on them. They were so sure, but the character was so different. I once invented a weird disease, this was pre-Internet, and later discovered that the disease was real. I invented a type of visual therapy thirty years ago, and, virtual reality has become a tool for therapy. As the comics say, I can’t make this stuff up.

    • Marilynn, your inventions bring to mind the theme from The Twilight Zone. Are there wrinkles in time that allow glimpses into the future?

      Now if only your prediction skills included winning powerball numbers…

  5. Like others have mentioned, some of my characters are mashups of people I know. I’ve never met any of my protagonists or antagonists in real life. Certain traits, yes, but not a complete embodiment. Sounds like fun, though!

    • Sue, like you and others, most of my characters are mashups. They may start as real people but they quickly become unrecognizable as they develop on the page.

      That’s why meeting TWO of my characters in person was so unusual…and fun!

  6. Pingback: When a Character Steps Out of a Book into Real Life – Debbie Burke

  7. After reading your description of Tawny Lindholm receiving a cell phone that she thinks is from her son I had to go and read the sample pages on Amazon. Interesting beginning. So familiar, yet different. I’m going to have to add that to my tbr list.

  8. “Others prefer to keep descriptions minimal,” Debbie wrote. “They paint a general picture but let the reader fill in the fine details.”

    I’m paying particular attention to descriptions of characters right now. I just read some Walter Mosley and then went to the next Connelly (Echo Park) in my process of working through his novels. I was struck by the difference. Mosley loves his descriptions. In And Sometimes I Wonder About You, before anything happens, Mosley give us a full page describing the characters in a train car. Connelly hardly tells us anything about how characters look. I couldn’t tell you what Bosch looks like, and, if I remember right from earlier books, Kiz Rider is black. This book doesn’t even mention that.

    A couple of other descriptions from Echo Park: “An old, thin guy with a white beard.” “A darkly complected Latino in a gray suit.”

    Here’s Mosley. A different artist choosing a different style and approach. We already know the woman he orders coffee from is black:

    “Can I help you, mistah?” the young woman who took orders asked. Her straightened hair was maybe two feet long and equal parts pink, turquoise, and dark brown. She had golden pins through either side of her upper lip and eyes that had seen things….

    “How are you today?” I asked

    “Rather be out there with you, Mr. McGill.”

    “…Then I wondered who she was. Maybe twenty and a few pounds over the limit imposed by American TV, movies, and fashion magazines…

    “Sherry, right?” I said. “Shelly’s friend.”

    “That’s good,” she complimented. “I was only over at your house one time.”

    • Eric, Mosley’s descriptions are wonderful b/c he goes beyond physical traits into the personality and psychology of the character. Just scanned the first page of Devil in a Blue Dress where Easy describes shaking hands with a white man he’s just met: “His grip was strong but slithery, like a snake coiling around my hand.” Pure art.

    • I attended a workshop given by Michael Connelly, and he said he thought that in all the books (to that date), he had about 81 words of description of Bosch.
      I did notice that in a more recent book, Bosch was described in a tad more detail and bore a striking resemblance to Titus Welliver.

      • “bore a striking resemblance to Titus Welliver.” 🙂

        I haven’t watched the TV series, though. Two reasons: I don’t want the storyline of the book series confused in my head and I want to keep my own pictures of the characters. Same reason I didn’t watch The Lord of the Rings or The Narnia movies. I always liked the way BBC’s Mystery stuck close to the stories in the books. And Suchet as Poirot!

        I’ve just started reading Mosley. Eager to get to more. There are just too many must-read mysteries.

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