Sonder, or: Everyone Has a Story

NaNoWriMo in T minus 10 days and counting…those of you participating, are you ready? Personally, I’m *almost* right where I want to be on November 1st. I want to be prepared, but not too prepared. I like having a little wiggle room in my plot and my outline, because one thing a lot of you may already know: your characters can surprise you. Your story may take on twists and turns you never thought about until you sit down and get into the nitty gritty.

Speaking of characters, there’s a word I discovered a few years ago. It’s one of my favorite words: sonder.


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Cool, right? And do you see the correlation to characters? I hope it’s clear, but if it’s not it basically boils down to this: characters are people (they should be, anyway). They have backstories, motives, flaws, etc. that make them relatable, and relatable characters are what it’s all about!

Image of just Because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.
The first quote about character I could think of.

I’ve seen other writers suggest doing things like interviewing their characters to learn more about them, but that always seemed…a little corny to me, I guess, although I wouldn’t be surprised if I still try it someday. But the other day I stumbled upon a different suggestion that ties into the notion of sonder—switch protagonists. It makes you look at your story from a little different angle, and makes you think about other characters that you may have been neglecting when it comes to fleshing them out and making them more interesting. I usually try to be thorough when it comes to fleshing out my antagonists, but I’ll admit I can forget about side characters sometimes.

The suggestion to switch protagonists comes from Scott Myers’s great Go Into the Story column on The Blacklist website. (Side note: do you all look to screenwriting resources for writing tips, too? Granted, the format is different, but most of the storytelling tips apply to novelists and writers of short stories as well. Myers’s column if a treasure trove of helpful advice, and I can’t recommend the YouTube channel Lessons from the Screenplay highly enough. Also almost any book on screenwriting by Syd Field). So, give it a shot, let me know what you think!

I’m also open to suggestions, what tricks to you have for making sure your characters are lifelike, three dimensional people that readers can relate to?

Published by Kenneth Jobe

Kenneth Jobe is a writer, photographer, musician, and Native Californian living in the Midwest with his wife and son. His fiction has been published in Jitter, The Rusty Nail, Ghostlight: The Magazine of Terror, and the horror anthology Robbed of Sleep, Volume 2.

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