Years ago, I read an essay about a Pulitzer Prize novelist.  The writer of the essay 

claimed that the novelist's relatives did not confide in her: they feared intimate 

details of their lives might spill into her novels.  The relatives wished for some privacy, 

in this, our most revealing and confessional TV-era yet.

So my question is this: Can a writer or novelist create solid, walking-off-the-page 

characters without dipping into her own life?  And the lives of those around her?

An interviewer obliquely raised this same question with Native-American novelist, 

Louise Erdrich--one of my favorite writers.   Erdrich said her novels are "something 

that's fabricated, but out of real observations and real aspects of people we might 

have known or imagined."   She creates complex characters by using composites. 

Inspired by Erdrich, I adapted the technique of composites (mostly after my first 

novel had been written).   Some of the other tips, I learned as I wrote; some, I've 

learned since.   I’ve  made use of these tips in my fiction, to avoid looking like I'm 

writing about myself and those I know all the time.  They are as follows: 

1-Use composites.--I try to create characters by blending characteristics of two or 

more people.   For example, try blending the mannerisms of one person you know--let 

us say, the milkman--with the physique of an ex-boyfriend, and the personality of a 

third person.  Experiment with the characteristics until they feel authentic. 


At times, a real person you know is one-of-a-kind--in which case, vigorously change 

one or two major characteristics if you wish to base a character on that person.   In my 

young adult novel--Porridge & Cucu: My Childhood--I based the grandfather-character 

on my own grandfather.  He was, for me, unusual and compelling.

2-Change names.--It may seem obvious, but not using real people's names is crucial.  

Unless you are writing a non-fiction novel, in which case you ought to triple-check facts 

and consult a lawyer.   If you make the risky choice of tattling about friends/acquaintances 

in your novels, then at least change the names.

In early versions of my novel, I broke this rule  by naming the main character "Yolandita"--

my own name.  At my mother’s suggestion, I later re-baptized that character with a new 

name.  Moreover, once or twice, I've met a real person with the same or similar name as a 

character I was writing about--in which case, I changed the character's name.

Use the internet to find name sites, such  as

or at and others.   Phone books, real or on-line, are good as well.  


3-Change locations.--If you and everybody you know lives in northern New Mexico, then 

change your novel's location to another city/part of  New Mexico, or to the Midwest.  

Especially if you live in a small town. You can achieve this by researching the new town 

on the internet. 

Some novelists, Faulkner and Erdrich among them, have gained success by creating worlds 

in the very state/city they lived in.   For Faulkner, Misssippi; for Erdrich, North Dakota.    

This makes sense, because you impart a sense of authenticity when you write characters 

in an environment you know very well.

Check out the What to see/What to do sites for most cities (especially in the U.S.), or try


4-Change time.--The same, basic story-line may be told in a different era.  The novel will 

resonate differently for the reader if set in, say, the 1980's as opposed to present times.  

Research historical information on-line  (headlines, news events, etc.)  at websites 

such as


5-Create authentically “real" characters.--I try to build characters from within.  Their 

psyches and their physiques.  Achieve this by being very specific.  Write everything about 

the character down.   From her hair color to her black Chanel suits.  If she's in cargo pants, 

are they baggy or too tight?  Was her childhood tormented or happy?  Which events define her 

life the most?

6-Create a scrapbook.--I once read that Emma Bovary was based on a real woman that 

Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist, read about in the newspaper.  So, collect magazine 

articles or news stories that interest you.  If the thought of organizing all that paper in folders 

is too much (they pile up!), then  bookmark links to interesting news stories on your PC.  

(I personally rarely read real newspapers.  Now I get most of my news on-line.)   Find lots of 

news stories at



7-Use a journal.--I have a stack of notebooks that I mine like gold for novels and stories.   

I also keep a novel journal, in which I write notes about my novel's characters and their lives.  

The story grows, changes, and  takes shape.  You might try using your computer or tablet 

PC to keep a virtual journal. 


Or you might try a blog--an on-line journal that must be posted at a web site.  Bear in mind, 

anyone with internet access can read your blog (if you make it public).  That means, both 

your cousin and that girl from college who dated your ex-boyfriend would get to read  your 

inner thoughts.   You can create a blog at websites such as  or


Each day that I write, I make an effort to practice one tip.  If you're a  novelist or short 

story writer, you know what I mean.  But if you're a writer toying with the idea/dream of 

writing a first novel, then read these tips again.



Yolanda A. Reid is the author of PORRIDGE & CUCU: MY CHILDHOOD—a young adult novel 

about a young girl growing up in Panama and New York.  Her second novel, THE HONEYEATER, 

is a contemporary women's love story.  She lives and writes in the USA.  For more info, visit




Copyright © 2013  by Y.A.  Reid

Subpages (1): How To Begin a Novel