Walking in a Character’s Shoes

When I read a romance, I want to be pulled so deeply into the story that I feel what the characters feel. I want to experience the world through their eyes, seeing what they see, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching what they hear, taste, smell, and touch.

Most important to me as a reader, I want to know what the main character thinks. I want to get inside her head. In essence, I want to become the heroine of the romance, vicariously living her life for the duration of the story.

My grandmother, who had some Native American heritage, used to say that to understand someone, you had to walk a mile in her moccasins. Nanny was on to something. If a writer can put me in a character’s shoes so that I experience everything she’s experiencing in such a way that I’m right there with her, I’m happy. I want to rejoice when good things happen to her, hurt when she’s hurting, laugh when she laughs.

There are many wonderful writers who put me firmly in their character’s shoes. Just  recently I was in the combat boots of Catherine West’s journalist heroine, Kristin Taylor, in Yesterday’s Tomorrow, experiencing the realities of life in war-torn Vietnam in the 1960s. I ached with her as she fought to make sense of a seemingly senseless situation.

Sarah Sundin put me in another pair of combat boots when I was in the seat of a B17 flying over Germany during WWII, fighting to save the lives of the crew along with her hero, Major Jack Novak, in A Memory Between Us. I felt his fear as he flew through the flak, rejoiced with him when he returned from missions in which no one was lost, and wept for him when the war robbed him of close friends.

I trod the dusty streets of Spencer, Texas in a cute pair of Victorian boots with Karen Witemeyer’s librarian heroine in To Win Her Heart. Eden Spencer’s mission to reach the townspeople with Christian charity became mine. And I fell for her blacksmith friend, Levi Grant, right along with her. He’s an incredibly well crafted hero, one I will remember for a long time to come.

When I write, I attempt to become my characters. I do my utmost to slip into their shoes, boots, or slippers and see the world through their eyes. I keep in mind their likes and dislikes, their chosen professions, their hobbies and interests.

The heroine of my debut novel, Elenora Watkins, plays the violin. I’m not musically inclined. My sole experience playing an instrument took place in sixth grade when I spent a year trying not to squeak as I practiced my clarinet. However, although I’ve never even held a violin, when I was writing Ellie’s story, I couldn’t hear enough violin music to satisfy me. I walked in her shoes, loving what she loves.

In a way, Ellie got into my shoes, too, changing me and expanding my world. When I pick up a book, that immersion into a character’s life is what I crave, and that’s the experience I hope to offer my readers.

What fictional characters have so thoroughly captivated you that you felt as though you were right there with them? In your opinion, how did the writer accomplish that?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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19 Responses to Walking in a Character’s Shoes

  1. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    For me it often was the other way round…lol. Some of my characters live and experience things I lived and experienced (mainly the good things..lol). And if the story plays in another time and place, then I tend to identifiy myself with one of the female characters, sometimes the main characters.

    I wrote a story about two musicians who live in Scotland, and I even composed and wrote songs for them which I still sing…haha. And sometimes my stories inspire me for a painting , and a painting can inspire me to write a story.

    So – I mostly get so deep into the story that it becomes a multi-creative thing of writing, music and painting.

  2. Wendy says:

    Oh my goodness, I felt that recently with a young boy…as though I were a gypsy right there along with his family in The Outside Boy. Young Christy (his nickname) climbed right inside my heart.

    I think the writer accomplished this by contrasting his sensitive soul with his cousin’s more impulsive, abrasive side and by having him deeply care about his surrounding world and the happenings of his life. He wasn’t just drifting through, but experiencing life intensely.
    ~ Wendy

  3. I’ve read many books where I’m in the character’s head walking and experiencing what she/he is. The most recent was Christa Allan’s novel Walking on Broken Glass. I fell right into everything her heroine was experiencing, crying when she cried, hurting when she did and feeling sassy right along with her. Christa has a unique writing voice and her descriptions were ridiculously good! I think that’s what sunk me into her character. When the book was over, I yelled, “No! That can’t be all. It can’t be over!” I wasn’t ready for it to end. 🙂

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Jesse, I read Christa’s book, too, and had a similar reaction. I wanted a sequel, but she said her publisher didn’t plan one at present. 😦

  4. I’m experiencing this walk-in-their-shoes sensation right now as I read Heaven is for Real. What a tear-jerker, an emotional roller-coaster. I feel like I’m in the hospital room with them and praying desperatly at the emergency prayer meeting, etc. Although this book isn’t fictional, it has definitely put me in the middle of this family’s struggle.

    When I read fiction I HAVE to want to be the heroine. If I don’t want to walk in her shoes then I usually finish the book with a very blah feeling.

  5. I just read All Different Kinds of Free by Jessica McCann. Unusual, gripping book! It’s fascinating to see how she handles writing the POV of a free black woman who is kidnapped and enslaved in the 1830s. I also found it refreshing that Jessica’s journalism background gives her voice a fresh feel. As you said in a post recently, Keli, sometimes the rules of what is popular in writing style can get a little stale. It’s fun to see someone depart from them, yet still write an engaging novel with good technique.

  6. Katie Ganshert says:

    Great post, Keli! That’s exactly what I want and aspire to do in my books too. Although I’m still learning how!! I know this is my go-to book, but man, the reason Francine River’s Mark of the Lion books stuck with me so much is because I felt so close to Hadassah. Talk about making characters come to life!

  7. Marsha Young says:

    An in-depth examination of POV. Nice post. …Marsha

  8. Lisa Jordan says:

    I read Susan May Warren’s Sons of Thunder and her characters pulled me back in time. Their problems gripped my heart and I mourned when they mourned.

    I hope my characters grip readers’ hearts and never let go!

    Great post, Keli!

  9. For me, it’s one of the classics…Anne of Green Gables. I think she’s so relatable because deep down inside, we all have this fear that we’re unlovable, and she wore that on her sleeve. Universal emotions have amazing powers. 🙂

  10. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    I’m so excited to read your book, ESPECIALLY because your heroine plays the violin. I can definitely relate to that 🙂 I love, love, love, books where I feel like I’m part of the character and I’m experiencing what he or she is feeling. But how the author did that? Oh…that’s a tough one. A mix of so many things, really, starting with authentic details and including everything from internal thoughts to relatable responses and actions. I’m going to have to pay special attention next time a book does that to me and make sure I’m utilizing the same techniques 🙂

  11. territiffany says:

    I read Catherine’s book and felt the same way! lovely post!

  12. Great post, Keli! For me, I always feel transported back in time and feel I’m “living” the main character’s life in Tamera Alexander’s novels (LOVE her style of writing!). 🙂 I’ve enjoyed reading all of her books she’s written so far, but I especially felt I was in the main character’s shoes in BEYOND THIS MOMENT (Book 2 in her Timber Ridge Reflections series). I remember the day I finished that book—I was so moved, I e-mailed Tammy and told her I was crying! (She’s such a sweet lady, and seemed genuinely happy that I’d enjoyed the book so much). ~ Thanks for this post today, because it’s reminded me that I need to work harder on “walking” in my heroine’s shoes. 🙂

  13. I love when I can walk in a character’s shoes! Elinor in Sense and Sensibility is the a remarkable character. She thinks so differently from me, so I didn’t like her at first. However, by the end of the book, I completely understood her point of view. Another Austen character is Emma who I really had to emerge myself into her point of view to appreciate her thinking.

    A contemporary writer who does this well is Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley mysteries). She creates such believable worlds and characters that I feel like I sometimes forget those characters aren’t real! LOL.

  14. Alicia: My Story really put me there in Alicia’s shoes in war torn Poland. It was a memoir, so I suppose it may be easier to accomplish what you’re talking about with that genre, but still I really FELT Alicia.
    I hope I can do this with my characters. I think I tend to want my reader to be SO much in their shoes I lose sight of the fact that the reader doesn’t need to know every single detail about them. Yes, I as the writer should know everything about my character and their backstory, but the reader can skip a lot of that and still really relate to the character.

  15. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks for the great comments. Lots of captivating books mentioned.

    I’m off to walk in my heroine’s cute Victorian boots. 🙂

  16. I’ve had several characters draw me in from all sorts of genres: Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Skye Denison in the Scumble River Series by Denise Swanson, and Jo Tulip in the Smart Chick series by Mindy Starnes Clark. The most recently “met” stand-out is the character of Lucy in Love Finds You in Snowball Arkansas by Sandra Bricker. Lucy pulled me in with her naivete’ and her determination, and she kept me in with her pure heart, clumsiness and imperfections. I can only hope that my characters can reach that same sense of “realness.”

  17. erin says:

    I just read Jillian Kent’s new novel and I was drawn into her heroine’s shoes… it was great. I love it when I get to walk a mile in a character’s shoes… it makes me feel as if I’m reading about a friend.

  18. Alica says:

    My friends call me a description whore- I want to know everything that’s going on how it feels, smells, tastes, and what the characters think. I really like Janet Evenavitch- I get lost in her books- esp the taste parts- she writes about meals a lot- I’m always hungry after reading her stories.
    Alica

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