Writing Stronger Characters

A friend recently passed on a point screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Jason Bourne series, among others) made. He said that a writer's understanding of human behavior caps the quality of that person's writing.

I agree.

But how do we better understand human behavior?

I've got a lot of ideas about that, too many for one article. For today, though, I'll stick with one – reading other people's life stories.

Types Of Life Stories

Overall, I read far more fiction than non-fiction. But when I'm first drafting a novel I like to read non-fiction and, particularly, people's life stories.

Life stories come in three basic varieties:

  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Memoir

Autobiography and Memoir are really subsets of Biography. Also, the lines between them can blur.

But for simplicity's sake I'll talk a little about each separately.


A biography is a person's life story told by someone else.

Biographies are usually based on research and source materials such as interviews, letters, original manuscripts, books, newspaper articles, etc.

I like biographies specifically because the author draws from multiple sources. That means getting different points of view about the life story that's presented.

You might get a glimpse into how a daughter, a chief of staff, or a leader of a foreign state saw the President of the United States in a certain timeframe. Each of those people no doubt will interpret the president's behavior in different ways, attributing different motives to the action and having different reactions.

Also, a biographer often stands at a distance and places the subject's life in a broad context.

I like reading biographies of people I both agree and disagree with. After the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign I read books about Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin.


Typically told in first person, in an autobiography the author writes about her or his own life.

Unlike memoirs, which I'll talk about next, an autobiography is usually pretty wide ranging. It covers the author's real life to date. The author usually shapes the story in a creative way so it has a narrative, but the idea is to stay fairly true-to-life and include from childhood on.

If the author/subject is a public figure, I like comparing the long-term perspective of the autobiography to what the author said at the time in news reports or interviews. (Or if it's a contemporary figure, on social media.)


In contrast to autobiographies, memoirs typically are narrow in scope. Rather than trying to tell a complete life story, the author collects personal memories connected by a specific emotional experience or theme.

For example, last fall I read Educated.

The memoir traces a young woman's journey from being home schooled in a family that takes an isolated, survivalist approach to life to earning advanced degrees and choosing a vastly different life from the way she was raised.

A memoir's tone is often less formal than an autobiography. When I read one I usually feel I get a better sense of who the author is and how that person speaks and thinks. Memoir writers often employ a bit of poetic license, combining characters, using pseudonyms to protect others' privacy, and including dialogue as best as they can remember.

What crosses the line from fact to fiction often creates controversy.

Of the three forms, I find memoirs go deepest into the point of view of the author/subject. Maybe for that reason, memoirs feel more immediate than either biographies or autobiographies.

Putting It All Together

Here's why I feel reading people's life stories helps me create more well-rounded characters:

  • I love getting multiple takes on the same person.

That can come from multiple sources in a biography or from reading more than one book about the same person. It makes it easier for me to imagine the many different ways my characters will see one another.

  • All three forms help me understand the points of view of people whose circumstances are very different from my own.

That makes it easier to write three-dimensional characters whose circumstances differ from what I know based on my own life and the people I've personally met.

  • I like to shut my eyes and imagine stepping into the shoes of each character I write.

The more life stories I read, the easier it is for me to do that.

  • Memoirs in particular expand the different ways of speaking and writing that I'm exposed to.

I find that especially helpful when writing first-person narratives. Or writing dialogue that's unique to each character.

  • Memoirs and autobiographies challenge me to figure out how honest or accurate I feel the author is being.

That in turn pushes me to truly understand each of my characters. And to remember that a character's stated reason for doing something, even if the character truly believes it, might be very different from the real motive.

That's all for today. Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you'd like some help with creating characters you can download my Free Character Creation Tip Sheets.



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