How important are characters in your stories?

Are characters the most  important part of a fiction piece? Do they control the action? Here is Elizabeth Kirschner, author of Because the Sky is a Thousand Soft Hurts, discussing the supremacy of the characters in our stories.

Please welcome Elizabeth to Choices while she’s on her WOW! Women on Writing virtual book tour.

The Invention and Supremacy of Character

by Elizabeth Kirschner

How are characters invented and why do I balk at the word “supremacy?” Yes, I put it in the title, meaning, I suppose, that the characters in our stories are the ones who dictate what may or may not happen in any given situation.

There’s a myth that I’d like to debunk. Namely, the writer doesn’t have full agency over what transpires in the story. We, at best, attempt to infuse our characters, let them, how odd, be the ones who choose the scent trail of their own fates.

Was it John Updike who likened the writing of stories to a game of baseball? The analogy being that we put our characters, like players, on the field, but cannot control the outcome of the game.

I’m not overly fond of sports analogies, but there’s an aptness here. It’s true that writers often adapt characters from their own lives, but if a character doesn’t take on his and or her own flesh and blood, one separate from the writer’s preconceived notions, it will remain a construct, a thing, a flatness.

How does this transformation occur? Characters aren’t real, they’re a fabrication, but if they don’t feel real, the story will fail. Illusion is involved and a dramatic leap.

Here’s a brief example from one of my own stories:

“Even as Grandma told this, her chin nodded slightly to the tune. It sent strawberry molecules into the air.”

In these two sentences, we learn that the grandmother is the actor here, she is actively “nodding her chin.” We imagine the tune, envision the strawberry molecules, her voice sends up into the air.

I’d love to put my own grandmother in all my stories, but I’m trying to write fiction, which requires that I use my imagination, my intellect, my heart to give all the other grandmothers in my stories their own vivacity, quirks, and most importantly, narratives that make them utterly singular.

No two stories are alike, nor are their characters. Think about what the writer is asking the reader to do. We’re back to that dramatic leap again, one that necessarily requires the suspension of belief.

What the writer wants is for the reader to believe, to find each and every character credible. This is a kind of magic, is it not? It’s what happens when the words on the page come to life. When the characters live and breathe, when we follow what may or may not happen to them with baited breath.

The books or stories I love most are the ones which transport me beyond my ordinary circumstances. The ones which let me live inside the characters some other writer has artfully creating for me. For me.

Isn’t that an incredible luxury, this feeling that the story, or book has been written for my sole pleasure? That’s how intimate the act of reading is.

And it is an act, that requires an active presence, a resoluteness and a commitment to stay with these particular characters, to follow through with them, so to speak, until the end.

Along the way, the reader gets to experience what they experience, vicariously and, yes, viscerally. The same privilege is afforded the writer.

The writer has no clearer sense of how things will transpire for his or her characters than the reader does. The experience of writing is as intimate as the experience of reading. A inner dialogue, so to speak.

For me, the invention of character is largely about listening, ear to the ground, for the slightest rumblings of what might occur. I mean, emphatically, it’s a profound, nearly religious act of listening.

While listening for my characters to tell me what must or will happen, I get to lose myself, journey with them. In this way, the act of reading parallels the act of writing.

I undertake writing in order to journey out of myself, to quite literally, take on an otherness—men who wear purple shoes, women who beat their own babies, fathers whose scalps are scratchy as cornmeal.

If I concoct a character who wears purple shoes, or a father who brings his own father to a funeral in a box labeled, in shaky Sharpie, RATHEL, then I’m obligated to try and understand why.

What will that father do with that box presumably full of his own father’s ashes? Detonate them? Pull rabbits out of them? Release a bevy of red birds?

Don’t stories arise from such intense rounds of interrogation? From listening and constructing the wherefores and whys and the seemingly inevitable consequences that result from a character’s actions, many of which may not appear to be chosen, but are what occur given the pressure of what might feel like extraordinary circumstances?

If a baby is thrown out of a window in the first sentence, then the story must undertake all the unholy circumstances that caused someone to commit such a deplorable act.

This means characterizing that someone, making he or she at least somewhat human, or recognizably human. Maybe she was wearing a blue dress with the second button missing. Maybe that button was tucked into the baby’s diaper, like a kind of awful good luck charm.

I don’t know. This is where I, as a writer, begin. I begin with “I don’t know” why that baby was thrown out of a window, but I will try, with all that is in me, to comprehend this reprehensible act, to lay down in vivid and concrete detail what both preceded and followed it and this will form the narrative arc.

But it’s the characters who drive the story. And it’s the details, that blue dress, the missing button, what she may or not say, even the shape of her mouth, which will influence how we feel about her.

The writer’s work is to follow that trajectory, watch that baby, describe the sound of her hitting the ground, say, like a sack of potatoes, and then, and then?

Ear to ground. Nose to ground. To smell, hear, see, taste and most importantly, feel how this will play out. This work is the work of being human.

If I’m to understand a woman who throws her own baby out of a window, I must become that woman, put on her blue dress, tuck that button in the baby’s diaper.

In doing so, in this very moment, I’m starting to cry. My heart is beginning to break. Why? It’s the button, that missing button, and the woman’s belief that it might serve as a good luck charm.

This breaks my heart. That woman, her doomed baby, and this is why I write stories. To get inside characters who do things anyone might do given the circumstances.

As the writer, I may invent the characters, the details and the circumstances, but never the outcome.

I guess that’s what I mean about supremacy, that the characters themselves possess a will greater than my own and, in this way, they dictate, and I record, thereby making me their instrument.

The writer, in the end, is subservient, or in service to. As it should be. From the beginning to the end and so on.

Book Summary

Because the Sky is a Thousand Soft Hurts is a raw and intense collection of intricately layered short stories that touch on the recurring themes of sexual violence, domestic abuse, mental illness, and addiction.

The characters are often cruel and inhumane with parents speaking in riddles to their abused children. The narrators are all women, usually unnamed, who have a lost, dissociated quality to them, as the details of their lives seem to fray.

As the stories develop, some of these narrators find love and normalcy, though not always happily. Violence pulses steadily throughout the collection, but it is the author’s hope that the stories not only reveal the breadth and power of her poetics, but also give voice to the disturbed, the dispossessed and the lowly in an elegant, lyrical form.

Purchase your copy now on and Barnes and Noble. Also make sure you add this to your GoodReads reading list.

About the Author

Elizabeth Kirschner is the author of Because the Sky is a Thousand Soft Hurts. It was brought out by Atmosphere Press in June, 2021.

Kirschner has published five volumes of poetry, most recently, My Life as a Doll, Autumn House Press, 2008, and Surrender to Light, Cherry Grove Editions, 2009. The former was nominated for the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Patterson Book Prize and named Kirschner as the Literary Arts Fellow in the state of Maine, 2010.

Her memoir, Walking the Bones was published by The Piscataqua Press, February, 2015. It was the winner of the North Street Book Prize for best work of nonfiction by an Independent author.

Kirschner has been writing and teaching multi-genres across four decades. She served as faculty in Fairfield University’s low-residence MFA in Creative Writing Program and has also taught at Boston College and Carnegie-Mellon University.

She has collaborated with many classical composers and this work is featured on numerous CD’s, including The Dichterliebe in Four Seasons, Schumann/Kirschner.

She currently serves as a writing mentor and manuscript consultant and teaches various workshops in and around her community in Kittery Point, ME.

Stay in touch with Elizabeth by visiting her website or by following her on GoodReads.


  1. Thank you for posting this blog re: the importance of characters in any given story. They are what determine the narrative’s direction and outcome! Always, please, listen to what your character’s have to say!

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