Lisa Lenard-Cook

The Lonely Writer's Companion

“Who Are These People, Anyway?”

Welcome to the new improved Lonely Writer’s Companion! The format’s simple: You send in your questions, and each month I’ll select one to answer. Email your questions to me c/o (Be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line.) You can also contact me through my website,

"The truth is, everyone wants to be in your book. "

Question: This month, I’ve combined a number of your questions into one. Renee G. asks if it’s better to build your characters from real people or make them up, S. B. wants to know how you create empathy for your characters, and Bill L. asks how you make secondary characters come alive. In short, characters—what’s a writer to do?

The Lonely Writer responds: I’m calling this Who Are These People, Anyway? because that’s the heart of each of these questions. Renee’s question, about real people, comes up a lot, especially from those writing memoir or memoir-disguised-as-fiction. Won’t Uncle Charlie be pissed when he sees what his character’s like in my book? Will my ex-BFF recognize herself if I make her a male character? And how will I ever convince my mother/father/sister/brother/ other they’re not my antagonist?

The truth is, everyone wants to be in your book. Even if they’re not there, they’re going to look for themselves. Case in point: Even though the major characters in my novel Dissonance (which SFWP is reissuing in Fall 2014) are fictitious, my mother-in-law (who, in her defense, is a pianist, like the two main characters) was convinced one of them must be her. I finally convinced her otherwise, but that’s a separate story.

"Give your characters your flaws, your phobias, your passions . . ."

The trick to creating empathetic characters—whether primary, secondary, or tertiary—comes from an entirely different source: you. Give your characters your flaws, your phobias, your passions, your desires, show why and how they feel that way, and readers will connect with them. Even if your character is grieving for a parent and both of yours are still living, you’ve grieved for someone or something. Even if you’ve never been a fool for love, you loved someone or something. Translate what you felt for your character’s feelings, and your character comes to life. Don’t tell us his heart ached. Show him lying on his bed, staring at his ceiling, and what’s going through his head as he does. Don’t tell us she’s thrilled by her promotion. Show us something like that scene from the beginning of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Mary tosses her hat into the air. Even if your characters are real people, as is the case when you’re writing memoir, you can imagine yourself into their heads. In fact, I’d argue it behooves (love that word!) us to do so, because that’s how we create real, living, empathetic characters.


Got a question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion? Email it to me c/o (Be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line.) Your question could appear in a future column.


Find Your Story Writer Your Memoir
Find Your Story,
Write Your Memoir

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
and Lynn C. Miller
Buy This Book via

PEN-short-listed author Lisa Lenard-Cook’s most recent book is Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press), which she co-authored with Lynn C. Miller, with whom she co-founded of ABQ Writers Co-op (, creating community in New Mexico for writers everywhere. She's an editor of the literary magazine bosque, on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and the Board of Narrative Arts Center in Santa Fe. Website: