All of my stories for middle grade readers have begun with my idea for a character.  That initial inspiration eventually blossoms into an entire book, but that only happens after I allow that character to become real in my own imagination.

If you’ve ever observed a four-year-old playing with her imaginary friend, you will see that for her, there is nothing at all imaginary about her friend.  For her, that friend is as real as everything else in her world.  This is the kind of realness that has to happen with my characters in order for me to be able to tell their stories and make those stories ring true for my readers.

So how do my characters become so real?  Very simply, I patiently get to know them, sort of the same way I would gradually get to know a new person I wanted to become friends with.  I find out what they like and what we have in common.  I find out what makes them laugh and what makes them cry; and most importantly, I find out what they long for?  I let the initial idea that inspired the character’s birth grow little by little as I discover who my character really is.  As I do this, the character’s story slowly begins to emerge.

This part of my writing process actually happens before I even sit down and begin a rough draft.  That way, by the time I do start to write my character’s story, that character is no longer just an idea in my mind.  The idea for that character has become, if you will, my new imaginary friend; and just like that four-year-old, who believes her imaginary friend is real, my new character is as real to me as the people in my real life.  At that point, when I sit down to actually begin writing my story, that “realness” only deepens; and as it does, I am able to get to the heart of what my character’s story really is.

Though I never had an imaginary friend as a child, now that I am all grown up and writing middle grade fiction, my books are full of them; and my hope as an author is that my readers believe my characters are as real as I do.

So if you are a writer yourself, you may be wondering, how do I create my own imaginary friends to fill up the pages of my stories?  Or, how do I help my students create characters in their creative writing assignments that feel as real as the characters they read about in books?  Here are a few tips:

  • Keep a small notebook handy for listing your ideas for characters. The ideas on your Character List might be as simple as a character’s name and one or two things about her.  For example, a girl with a nickname of Ratchet who knows how to fix cars but wishes her life were different was the very beginning of my idea for what became the book THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET.  It’s the very starting point, only the tiniest tip of the iceberg about who your character is, and in this very beginning stage, it doesn’t have to be much.
  • As you train yourself to keep a Character List with your best ideas, you’ll find that certain characters stick in your mind more than others. Those particular characters begin to nag at you a bit and sort of beg you to pay attention to them.  At this point, I buy that character her own notebook.  A notebook that would suit her personality.  For example, when I was working on ALWAYS, ABIGAIL, I bought a spiral notebook that was very “girlie-girl.”  The kind of notebook Abigail would have chosen if she had gone shopping.
  • Once you have your Character Notebook, you get to fill it up with all the things your character is telling you about herself. Just listen.  She’ll tell you things about herself; and eventually, if you listen long enough, she will, not only tell you things about herself, but she’ll actually start telling you things that have happened to her.  You’ll find yourself writing whole scenes – scenes that may or may not become part of your story, but no need to worry just yet about that.  At this point, you’re only striving to get to know your character better so that you can find out what her story actually is.  The important thing is that your character is becoming more and more real to you.  For example, while writing JUST LIKE ME, one of the things I wrote in my “Julia Notebook” was the scene when Avery and Becca ate Cheetos with chopsticks on the way to Camp Little Big Woods.  This scene did eventually end up in the book; but more importantly, when I wrote that scene in my Character Notebook, it helped me discover important issues Julia needed to work through in this story.
  • By the time you have filled up a good portion of your Character Notebook, your character is no longer just an idea. In your mind, she is a real person, one who you know quite well.  Now you are ready to write her story so that she can become real to readers too.
  • My last tip for writing great real-life characters is to pay attention to the characters in the books you love. Most often, the books we love have characters in them who feel so real they are almost like friends.  Study how the authors of those books create such authentic characters; characters who make us really love their stories.  Soon you and your students will be enjoying new imaginary friends; and when you write their stories, the real world will get to enjoy them too.


Growing up there were lots of books whose characters were so real I wished they were my friends.



Happy Reading & Happy Writing!


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Nancy J. Cavanaugh is the acclaimed author of Always, Abigail, a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee, and This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, a Florida State Library Book Award winner, an NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts Award winner, and a nominee for numerous state awards, including Florida Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award and Illinois Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Award.  School Library Journal calls her third novel, Just Like Me, “A charming and refreshingly wholesome coming-of-age story . . . Filled with slapstick humor and fast-paced action.”

Nancy and her husband and daughter enjoy winters in sunny Florida and eat pizza in Chicago the rest of the year. You can find her online at and on Twitter as @nancyjcavanaugh.