How Far Would You Go?

“Harold, I’m sorry. You have to die…It’s her masterpiece, possibly her most important work in her already stunning career. I’ve been over it again and again, and it’s absolutely no good unless you die at the end….it’s the nature of all tragedies that the hero dies but the story goes on forever.”  – Dr. Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), Stranger Than Fiction

The other night I watched Stranger than Fiction—one of my favorite movies about writing. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it for its entertainment value alone. Harold Crick (played by Will Farrell) is a hapless IRS agent who, it turns out, is also the main character in a novel being written by author Kay Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson). It’s not entirely clear if Eiffel invented Harold or if somehow she is writing things that begin to happen to him. It is clear—however—that Harold Crick must die.

I don’t want to give away the whole movie, but to figure out what’s going on—why someone is narrating his life—Harold goes to see a professor of literature. The series of visits and literary analysis that the two go through are hilarious…as Dr. Hilbert devises a series of questions to figure out whether Harold’s story is a comedy or a tragedy. Sadly, ultimately Dr. Hilbert confirms that Harold’s story is a tragedy so he must die to ensure the success of Eiffel’s novel.

It made me consider. And admittedly, this is an outrageous question. How far would I go to ensure I had a masterpiece? Or for that matter, to have a book published? Would I care if my main character—who turned out to be a real person, albeit that I didn’t know, could die as a result of me finishing the book?

To me, this extreme allegory could be the expression of what we all go through as writers. How do we get the words on the page, get the job done. Make our characters come to life? What games must we play in our minds? How do we convince ourselves that the story is worthy of telling?

Do we need to imagine a real person at the other end of what we’re writing? I’ve been thinking about this a lot while I’ve been revising the draft of my WIP. Primarily because I have pictures in my mind of most of my characters—but two (my main character and her new love interest) have been hazy in my mind’s eye.

Then about two weeks ago I went into Starbucks, and a group of women was seated at a table a few feet from where I stood at the cash register. When I glanced over, one woman seemed familiar, almost as though I knew her (I didn’t), and I realized in a flash that it was how I pictured “Annie,” my main character. A strange sensation passed over me as I surreptitiously glanced over at her several times, memorizing details that I could write later.

And yesterday, at Trader Joe’s, when MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went to buy some wine, we were approached by a Trader Joe’s employee. The second I saw him I knew: he was “Annie’s Will,” her new love interest. I briefly considered using my iPhone to snap his picture—but decided that was going too far, and anyway he might have noticed.

After he answered our questions about Proseco, “Annie’s Will” walked away, and as he did, MEH—who knew I was in search of a face to fit the character in my mind—turned to me and said: “Let me guess: Will?” He had seen my writer’s face.  

As I consider my main characters—these two individuals who have come to personify them, yet with whom I have no relationship beyond my imagination—I wonder. Could I like Kay Eiffel write a scene that I knew would affect them? What if it was a good thing—that as a result of what I wrote, “my Annie” and “my Will,” selected seemingly at random, would really meet and fall in love? 

Could I cause one of them harm? (In truth I can’t even write the words in this blog “to die” in relation to anyone, so I think I know my answer to that one.) But a broken arm? A minor accident? A cold? To ensure a bestseller, a masterpiece, or simply a published novel?

How far would I go?

How far would you go? How do you put faces to your characters? 



  1. My characters are often hazy, and I absolutely love that you’ve said that. I was feeling a little weird over here, wondering if I were the only author to write people she couldn’t SEE. Oh, I know their details, but, like you, I’ve had many, many instances of seeing someone and saying, “THAT’S THEM!”. Usually, it’s been some randomly stumbled-across image online, which I hastily save in the “inspiration” folder assigned to that particular story. Some of my characters still don’t have faces.

    As for writing a real person into a real problem, I wouldn’t be able to, or want to. I’ve killed characters, but that’s because they’re only real in my head. I can’t cause actual harm.

    I write because I’m miserable if I don’t. I need to, like any other need in life. 🙂


  2. Ann says:

    Julia – I LOVE that movie! I never considered that question from your point of view! I guess I’m unwilling to hurt or kill a person to make my masterpiece, but if you KNOW no one is harmed in the writing of your story – you can do whatever you want!

    You’ll have to check in on “Will” and see how he’s doing. ….after all – you know where he works!

  3. Your post kind of remminds me of the question posed by the movie The Box. Two people are given a box with a button. They are told if they push it they’ll get a million dollars, but someone they don’t know will die.
    Obviously we couldn’t kill off our characters if it meant someone like them would actually die (although in The Box the greedy couple do exactly that…but it’s a movie (and kinda stupid, BTW!)). But even so, it’s hard to kill off a beloved MC at the end of a novel. I didn’t worry I was actually killing a REAL person, but my MC became real to me after spending so many months (years now!) with him. I still can’t read the end without crying…and I hope it has that effect on its eventual readers. 🙂
    Interesting that you are finding real people who remind you of the people in your WIP, Julia. I would ask them if you can take a picture…I bet they’d let you. Especially if you told them why. Or you could always sneak one. I know, I know…but hey, we’ve already admitted we are shamless evesdroppers…it’s not much of a stretch to sneak photos. LOL!

  4. JM Merchant says:

    It’s a scary thing to think about sometimes isn’t it.

    I love that moment though when you see someone and realise you’re staring at one of your characters. Unfortunately one of my 3 MCs still isn’t talking to me much after nearly two years and it’s getting very frustrating.

    I remember after I did my very first outline for this story, a friend read it over for me and though she enjoyed it, she said I was being too nice to my primary MC to the detriment of the conflict in the story. And she was right. Especially as they’re pirates I can’t always protect them, they have to get bashed about, and now 2 of my MCs come to very serious harm towards the end. It was to some extent refreshing to be able to do this, and it’s made the story a lot more real for me to be faced with my own character’s limited mortality.

  5. CMSmith says:

    I like watching you on your adventures. Good post.

    If I were to write fiction, I doubt I would be able to kill off a character. Maybe. I guess I’ve done it in nonfiction.

  6. I love that movie! I think my characters usually resemble people I know. I’ve tried imagining certain actors playing them and sometimes that works, but I always know it’s just an actor playing the character and not exactly what the character looks like in my head.

  7. Ashlee, I’m so glad that someone else can relate to stumbling across a character — very weird, especially when they’re a living breathing person standing in front of you. Very disconcerting! It sounds like writing is a very natural and important part of your life! Looking forward to reading your fiction!

    Ann, I don’t know if I will check on “Will” — I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that nothing sooo bad happens to him in my book! That said, I am also writing a murder mystery, and whomever the victim is doesn’t yet have a face…. but the murderer does! YIKES!

    Cynthia, Now that you mention THE BOX, I think I’ve heard of it! Thanks for the heads up that it doesn’t sound worth watching… I’ve never killed off a beloved character but in the murder mystery I’m writing I do kill at least one person. I think I’ll dread seeing THAT person around town 🙂 p.s. as for taking the picture, MEH offered to take one for me and/or ask the guy (he wasn’t with me when I saw “Annie”). I tried to take one sneakily but it was just too crowded… haha

    Jo, I know what you mean about that frustrating feeling of not putting a face with a character — that’s exactly how I felt. I think it’s hard when it’s the MC, especially if I feel like that person is a lot like me. I don’t want her to look like me, but I need a face for goodness sakes! As for harm to characters, I see how it would be necessary for pirates! For my book, there is less physical and more mental hurt involved… which can also be difficult to bear sometimes!

    Christine, If I write fiction that causes harm to a fictional character, that’s probably all right with me. However, writing about real life and death is a different matter. And my hat goes off to you for handling your memoir in such a lovely and sensitive way. (p.s. I’m glad you enjoy watching my adventures — sometimes I wonder about myself! 🙂

    Shary, Happy to find another fan of the movie! I know what you mean about characters resembling people you know — me too with many. I have tried the actor approach too, but I agree that I always know it’s an actor. Like you, it never quite matches up exactly with the vision in my head — even “my Annie” and “my Will” are morphing in my mind, I’m sure, to a hybird between reality and my imagination!

  8. This movie sounds so fun! Especially with Dustin Hoffman in the role of the professor of literature. And Emma Thompson as the novelist would fit her like a glove. Great casting!

    Your post is fascinating and your questions provocative. I recently discovered how far I would go while finishing my second screenplay. There’s a girl in the movie who is fourteen years old and she needed to have an accident. The accident I had in mind for her would certainly have made the script more dramatic – but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Why? Because she’s someone’s daughter. Even though my own daughter is ten years older than the character – and even though they have nothing particular in common – I couldn’t do it. I was too afraid of the power of words. So I gave her concussion, which she recovered from just fine. (The original accident would have left her with a permanent injury.)

    What a thrill to see your two hazy characters come to life in Starbucks and Trader Joe’s! I was impressed with how tuned in MEH is to your writer’s face. And how accurate his guess was!!

    (Ever thought of putting MEH into one of your novels. LOL! Then you’d really have some dilemmas about what can happen to the character. But you’d have plenty of MEH-isms to work with, that’s for sure.)

  9. What a wonderful post. I love that you saw your main characters in real life just when you needed them to appear. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but perhaps it will when I really need it to. I quite often draw my characters, but normally I have to write about them for a while before their features come to me. I’m fairly sure I use past experiences and people who I’ve met in my life to build my characters, but I couldn’t identify what/who these are. As for killing off a character, I’m not sure I’d be up to the job – the worst they’d probably suffer is a cold!

  10. Milli, I think you’d love the movie! Dustin Hoffman is HILARIOUS and Emma Thompson slightly disturbing, not gonna lie. I especially think you’d enjoy the movie after hearing your description of your recent experience with the daughter! Oh MEH is soooo tuned in. He said more, but I’m not going to divulge; a little too personal! However, MEH IS in one of my novels: the one with Maggie! He’s a co-main-character. Although Joe (Maggie’s husband) doesn’t look exactly like MEH, they are very very similar! 🙂 And yes, Joe has PLENTY of MEH-isms, and you can bet he’ll be perfectly safe.

    Abi, Glad you enjoyed the post! It was the weirdest weirdest thing seeing “My Will” and “My Annie.” Honestly a little surreal and unnerving. I so agree that I need to write about characters before I can really see them clearly. That’s why here I am in draft stage, still hazy. One of the other characters, an older man, was clear in my mind from Day 1, also a little odd. I too think I build characters from my past but cannot identify them. I think it’s so fascinating that we see a person so clearly in our mind that doesn’t actually exist. (p.s. glad you’re not a character killer at heart, either!)

  11. Emma Pass says:

    My characters always feel so real I wouldn’t be surprised to see them getting on the bus when I’m going to work! I really fall in love with them, and when I see people who could be them – which happens often – it gives me the chills. Like you, I can’t stop staring at them.

    In the past, this created a problem for me, though, because as a result, I used to be far too nice to my characters, making things too easy for them, meaning there wasn’t enough conflict in my stories.

    These days I find it hugely satisfying knowing that I’ve pushed a character to their absolute limit, especially if they make it out the other side! Obviously it has to fit with the story – I don’t give them a hard time just for the sake of it – but I will do whatever is necessary to create maximum emotional impact.

    I ALWAYS feel bad about being so horrible to them afterwards, though!

  12. OMG!! MEH is in your Maggie novel?! As if I wasn’t already excited enough about wanting to read it!! I can’t WAIT to see Joe with those MEH-isms.

  13. Love that movie! It actually made me cry when she sees him for the first time. I was imagining meeting my Sarah and Annie. Can’t help it, I’m a crier.

    Anyhow, I was dealing with a sticky plot issue the other day and realized the character I was going to kill off should live. At least for a few chapters…Who knew?

  14. Pet says:

    Oh, thanks for the tip. I think I will like this movie!

  15. Emma, I remember you saying that before about your characters and the bus! I really feel the same way now about mine — so I know exactly what you mean about the chills and staring. I also know what creating maximum emotional impact — I’ve been working on that today as well. It’s hard to do to characters you’re in love with but so worth it in the end! 🙂

    Milli, Yes, MEH aka Joe is in the Maggie novel. It’s a fun book that needs to get written…. I better get with the editing program!!

    Karen, I cried during that movie as well. I can’t remember if it was at the part you did, but it was very emotional throughout! As you say, it’s very emotional thinking about meeting our characters. I can imagine the elation if a character I thought would die was going to live, even for another few chapters! WOOHOO, right? 🙂

    Pet, I think you’ll like it too, so funny and entertaining, really holds the pace until the end!


  16. Barb Riley says:

    This was a very thought-provoking post. I wish I could see the movie again with all my online writerly/blogging friends and go out for coffee afterwards. I think we’d have great discussions about it. There were so many things I loved (I need to watch it again). When Emma Thompson saw the green apple roll and had her “aha” moment? *Goosebumps* for any of us who’ve ever had a plot line fall into place like that!

    I’ve had the character thing happen once, when I was out to dinner with a non-writer friend. It’s so good to come here and read your (and others’) experience with this phenomenon b/c when it happened for me I think my friend thought I was a nutso stalker. (I couldn’t stop staring!) I burst out laughing that you even considered taking a picture! You crack me up!

  17. Barb, I had to laugh at your “nutso stalker” description. EXACTLY how I felt when I saw those two people. I honestly could not stop looking at them either! Luckily MEH is used to my nutso (I mean incredibly serious) writer ways and was seriously ready to help by taking that pic! It would be SO fun to watch STRANGER THAN FICTION with a group of writer friends, so true! (Except maybe we’d pick it to pieces, lol)

  18. Erika Marks says:

    Julia, I enjoyed this movie so much when I watched it–yes! What a fantastic post–and at TJ’s, no less!:)

    And I love how MEH knows you so well–but of course he does!;)

  19. I rented Stranger Than Fiction this evening and had a blast watching it while I ate a picnic dinner of cheese and crackers, black olives, almonds, red apple and mini Mars Bar. The movie was a total delight. I’m still smiling from it all. A true “feel-good” movie . . . except, you’re right, Emma Thompson was disturbing. She certainly took on that role like a second skin! :~D

    P.S. There were some good lines but my favorite was when the cute baker lady said she had decided her contribution to making the world better would be with cookies. Wish I’d written that!

  20. I LOVE Stranger Than Fiction! It’s one of my favorite movies as well, and there are so many great parts to describe but I have to admit I always die laughing when the professor’s interest piques thanks to “Little Did He Know” and my hearts melts when Harold brings the tulips.

    I know I definitely wouldn’t be able to finish a book if it meant someone would die, but there are other less black & white decisions that we have to make as writers. For example, in my novels, though none of the characters are based on people in real life, some are based on parts of people I know. And it worries me sometimes that they’ll see themselves in it, or think I wrote about them. There’s even one anecdote that I wrote about a character, and it ended up happening to someone I love (but I wrote it long before!). And since it was a painful experience for them I worry that they’ll think I exploited it, when it fact it was never about them. So I question things like that all the time. Great post, Julia!

  21. Erika, Yes, good old TJ’s comes through again 🙂 It was quite an amusing moment for us (well, those of us who knew what was going on… “My Will” was pretty clueless about the whole episode I think… Glad you enjoyed the post and the movie too!

    Milli, So glad you rented and enjoyed the movie. And I agree, what would be nicer than making the world better but through cookies? 🙂 Nice line, agreed! (p.s. glad I’m not an Emma Thompson type writer, yikes!)

    Natalia, Why am I not surprised we both like this movie? 🙂 I so agree — the “Little Did He Know” moment is one of our favorites as well — but as you say too many great parts to describe. I can see why it would be worrisome to write something that ended up happening to someone I cared about — worrying they’d think I exploited it. As you say, non black & white decisions are frequently necessary frequently when writing fiction; not for the faint of heart!

  22. I love that movie too! It was one of the most unique and different movies in some time. And I like that it has to do with writing. I haven’t had too much experience putting faces to characters. But I’m planning to read all these comments to give me some ideas.

  23. Leah, I agree — such a unique movie! Hope you get some good ideas from the comments on putting faces to names in fiction. It’s so interesting how an identity can be fabricated out of thin air!

  24. I saw this movie, too, and loved it for the way the writer’s task is portrayed so well. (I’m not sure if non-writers would get it.)
    I love that you saw Annie’s Will in the Trader Joe’s. Amazing where and when inspiration can strike.

    I remember an interview with Andre Dubus in which he said that he was finishing a manuscript and one of his favorite characters had to die. That was the truth of the story, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He tried every possible outcome and none rang true. He had to put the ms in the drawer until he had the courage as an author to do the dirty deed. 😛

  25. Jackie, I have found Trader Joe’s to be an amazing place to find/see characters! I’m not sure why, but I sure wish they had a little cafe or benches or something. I might camp out for a while! 🙂 And I am so interested in the Andre Dubus story! I wonder if that’s where the writer of STRANGER THAN FICTION got the idea for the screenplay?!

  26. Lisa Ahn says:

    I love that movie and I love that your husband knew exactly what you were thinking in the grocery store – even down to the character. Fabulous!

  27. Lisa, This movie has generated a lot of conversation — lots of fun and lots of “what ifs” for the writing mind! As for MEH, he is very tuned into my “writing lapses,” shall we say! 🙂