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From Journalist to Novelist: Crafting Characters with the 5 Ws and an H



aybe you’ve heard this before at a writing workshop—or possibly said it yourself:

But it really happened that way!

The truth is stranger than fiction, or so the saying goes. There are some things we’d simply never believe if we encountered them in a novel.

But what if you’re trying to write what you know and basing a story on a real-life event? What happens when that fails? Is there a way to salvage the piece? Or better still, could you weave real-life details into fiction in a way that would enhance and elevate the story?

Even if you aren’t writing from real life, the techniques below can help you enrich your fictional worlds and draw your readers into your stories.

Build Your World

Worldbuilding isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction. Often what’s missing in pieces of fictionalized real life is adequate worldbuilding.

Sometimes, you’re simply too close to the subject matter to see what’s missing. You can see the dust from the gravel road floating in the air, taste the grit of it against your lips, and watch the taillights of your ex’s Mustang fade into the distance.

But can your reader?

You know there’s an endless traffic light on Fifth and Main and that the downtown skyway always smells like marijuana, the scent so thick you worry your boss will think you’ve been indulging before work.

But does your reader?

Don’t forget the people in your world. Who they are and what they want. As with fictional characters, real-life ones have agendas, motivations, desires, and dislikes.

But does your reader know what they are?

These details can get stuck in a writer’s head. Solution? Put the piece away for a bit or ask a trusted friend what’s missing, and then weave those details into your story.

Because, ultimately, inadequate worldbuilding may mean your reader is unable to suspend disbelief.

Need to build a more robust world? Read articles or flip through a writing craft book on science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding for inspiration. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has an excellent resource for worldbuilding.

If you’re fictionalizing an event from your life but setting it in the here and now, ask yourself:

Does it make sense?

This can be tricky for writers to navigate. Our world changes so quickly these days. Keeping the event evergreen goes beyond surface details.

The Fine Art of Keeping Quiet by Charity Tahmaseb

When I wrote The Fine Art of Keeping Quiet, I needed a high school curriculum where my main character could be failing speech class. Initially, I based the academic program on my son’s high school. By the time he graduated, the curriculum had changed. Now, as my daughter gets ready to graduate, it has changed yet again.

No two high schools will ever be the same. With a little research and feedback, I invented a curriculum that’s specific enough to serve the story but isn’t a copy of an actual program that could date the narrative.

Even better? I included those worldbuilding details into the story during a highly uncomfortable parent-teacher conference.

Let Go

While the truth may set you free, it may also constrain you—at least when it comes to fiction. One of the most challenging things to do when fictionalizing real life is to let go of what really happened.

When story events line up too closely to real life, there’s no room for the reader to use her imagination. Worse, the reader may feel there are pieces of your story that are missing. Chances are, she’s right.

It can be easy to march lockstep through your real-life narrative without considering that stories—all stories—need structure.

Your real-life story may not have a dark moment.

But could you invent one?

The ending may rely on a coincidence.

But could you weave something into the beginning to foreshadow events?

How do you decide what to change? One of my favorite techniques is using the objection. Identify what your workshop or critique partner objected to, and work it into your story.

Sometimes, this is as easy as having a secondary character voice the objection and having the main character and story events address it.

Or it might be more subtle than that. Perhaps you need to work backward and plant clues, so the ending lands. Maybe you need to incorporate crucial pieces of backstory, so the reader understands the main character’s motivation.

Craft books on structure

If you need some structure for your story, consider the hero’s journey. The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler is easy to read and accessible. Or your story may demand something along the lines of The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson.

Even revisiting the classic three-act structure may spark ideas for elements missing in your story. Or perhaps using a fairy tale can help you structure your real-life narrative.

Don’t be constrained by the truth. If you’re genuinely writing fiction (rather than nonfiction), give yourself permission to experiment with story events. Beyond fixing structural issues, by going off script, you may also end up revealing the emotional truth of the piece.

Engage the Five Senses (Plus One)

One of the best things about using real life to create fiction is the wealth of information and detail you have to work with. As readers, we believe a story when we can feel the dirt beneath our fingernails, taste the soil, and smell the scent of the tomato plant on our skin.

Smell and taste are especially evocative but often neglected. Adding them in is one way to enrich a scene. Make the senses work together and do double duty: the brightness of the sun against your eyelids and the warmth of it on your skin.

Pepper your story (real life or fictional) with those true-to-life senses for verisimilitude. One thing I remember distinctly from my inauspicious stint on the cheerleading squad was how heavy those darn pom-poms were. (These were 80s pom-poms; like our hair, they were huge.)

The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading

So I used that in The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading:

My legs trembled. My voice was hoarse. I’d lost five pounds in sweat, five pounds that had magically transferred to my pom-poms. Who knew fringe could be so heavy?

One technique for drawing your reader into the story and establishing verisimilitude is to use all five senses within the first one hundred words (give or take) of your story. Engaging all five of the senses early on will ground your reader in the place of the story. But there’s one more sense to consider.

The sense of time.

When are you in your story? Is it present day? Ten years ago? Time matters. Time shifts. Time can wreak havoc on your present-day story.

Recently, I read a story where the main character was sitting in a restaurant booth by the phone. For five seconds, I didn’t understand what the author meant until I realized that the story had been written more than twenty years ago, and the phone wasn’t a cell phone—it was a payphone.

It’s been ages since I’ve seen a payphone in the back of a restaurant, and the reference threw me out of the story.

Plant clues in your story about the time your character inhabits, and not just the year or decade, but the time of day, the season, and even the time in their lives.

Change the View

If your real-life story isn’t working in first person, consider narrating from another point of view. You may be too close to the events in your story, or your worldview may be too elusive. If you’re dealing with events that make you feel vulnerable, you may be holding back (understandably so).

Step outside yourself and use a different point of view, especially if you’re grappling with the narrative. Think beyond the antagonist or the main character’s best friend. What happens if you tell the story from the family pet’s point of view? The faithful teddy bear’s? The kitchen table where all the family discussions are held?

You can try this as an exercise as a way to open up the narrative and then incorporate the results into your first-person story. Or you may find that choosing an unexpected narrator can engage the reader and add surprising depth to a piece. This technique is an excellent way to create pieces of flash fiction based on your own experience.

Change Partners

For certain pieces, you may need to let go of the “I” altogether. You may need to establish distance and perspective by giving the real-life event to a character unlike yourself.

Can you build a story that way or perhaps conceive of a new one? What if you were to make one significant change to the “I” character of your piece, so that character is no longer you? How does that alter the story and open it up?

The Fine Art of Holding Your Breath

I used this technique in The Fine Art of Holding Your Breath. While I still used first person and gave the character of MacKenna’s mother most of my own experiences, I made one crucial change.

I made her a mother. I was childless when I deployed to Desert Storm, but revisiting those events through the eyes of a mother helped me get out of my own way.

I stand in my government-issued quarters,
staring at the walls I planned to paint green
if I were staying here.
Where I’d watch my baby girl take her first steps
if I were staying here.
Where I’d cuddle her each night, learn her secrets and dreams
if I were staying here.
I clutch MacKenna close and wonder
what it will feel like
when she’s no longer there to hold.
The only thing harder than being a new mother
is being a new mother about to deploy to war.

Making this character a mother meant she was no longer me. It meant I had to dig deep and revisit my experiences through her eyes. It meant considering who this new person was and what her hopes and dreams were. The change helped me let go of what really happened and craft a narrative that worked.

Be a Master of Disguise

I grew up in the same town as Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books. I devoured these books and reread them long into my teens and as an adult. Maud set the series in her hometown of Mankato and based the books on her own life. She died in 1980; and while I never had the chance to meet her, I loved her and her books so much.

When I started writing, I looked to Maud for inspiration.

In The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading, I took a real-life event (making the varsity cheerleading squad during my senior year) and set the story in a fictionalized version of our hometown. For Maud, it was Deep Valley. I went with Prairie Stone.

Take that real-life event or place and give it a makeover. Setting your story in your hometown can help with verisimilitude; fictionalizing your hometown can enhance the overall story from characterization to the plot.

You can blend two of your favorite places to build a new one (you might even want to draw a map).

Must Love Ghosts

This technique cuts across all genres. When writing fantasy, science fiction, or paranormal stories, tap into those real-life places and things that have emotional resonance for you. In my Coffee and Ghosts series, much of the action revolves around the Springside Pancake House, a blend of a couple of my favorite restaurants.

The technique works for characterization as well. Blend traits from a few real-life people into one character. Remind yourself that antagonists have hopes, dreams, and should be fully realized by giving them a name that has fond memories or associations. (Be careful with this one—you don’t want someone thinking that the villain is based on them.)

Change the Form

You may have a novel’s worth of material to work with, but a novel may not be the best form for the story.

Try an entirely new form. Select a moment and build a piece of flash fiction around the event. Take it a step further with the Rashomon effect, where you narrate the same event from multiple perspectives.

If you usually write in the past tense, experiment with the present tense. Consider framing your narrative with a character from the future who discovers your story as part of a time capsule. Can you tell your story as a series of letters or fictional journal entries? What if you told it in a series of before and after vignettes?

Breaking out of the linear timeline might help you break open your story.

Another thing I’ve grappled with when writing about my military experience is figuring out how much detail the (civilian) reader needs and providing that without boring them. I have two trunk novels and countless pieces about my time in the Army that simply don’t work.

In The Fine Art of Holding Your Breath, I tried journal entries and letters. Then, at long last, I took my cue from the poets of World War I and crafted my military experience into free verse poetry.

We play name that piece of enemy equipment
on the tedious drives to division HQ.
I’ve taken to shouting out, T-72!
no matter what I see.
It’s my favorite tank, I tell Sergeant Wilcox,
as if such a thing were possible.

Can you cut the extraneous detail until all you have is the core of your story? Is it possible that’s all it needs? Sometimes less really is more.

Trying new forms and taking a radical approach can be freeing and fun. You might end up with brand new stories and pieces to send out or simply discover a new way into the material of your life.

In Conclusion

Letting go of “but it really happened that way” doesn’t mean letting go of the story you want to tell. All it means is looking at your life and events through a different lens. To quote James Joyce, “In the particular is contained the universal.”

We need to weave these real-life details, emotions, and events into all of our writing, be it fiction or nonfiction. We need the particulars to help us express our universal truths.

In other words, it’s real life, only better.



Charity Tahmaseb

Charity Tahmaseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of airplanes (but not at the same time). She spent twelve years as a Girl Scout and six in the Army; that she wore a green uniform for both may not be a coincidence. These days, she writes fiction (long and short) and works as a technical writer for a software company in St. Paul. Her novel, The Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading (written with co-author Darcy Vance), is a YALSA 2012 Popular Paperback pick in the Get Your Geek On category. Check out her blog at, follow her on Twitter @geekgirlx2, and Instagram @charitytahmaseb.



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