Literary writing prompt: real characters

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt that uses a quotation from Pearl S. Buck to get students thinking about literary characterization.


Author Pearl S. Buck, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was regularly asked by readers whether characters in her novels “were real people.” Here’s how she responded:

Of course they are real people, created from the dust of memory and breathed upon by love. Yet not one of the lived outside my books exactly as they do within them.*

Here’s your writing assignment:

Explain how the way you define “real people” affects how you personally understand and appreciate a novel.

Here are some issues to consider:

1.  Think about what Buck means when she says her characters are real people. Do you think her definition of “real people” is the same as her readers’ definition?

2. Identify an example of a novel in which the characters are “real people” as Buck defined the term, but not “real people” as her readers defined the term.

3. Do you tend to define “real people” as Buck does or as her readers’ did?


It might be interesting to have students respond to this prompt once near the beginning of a year and again near the end, using different novels as their examples, to see if their study of literature changes the way they view works of literature.

*the quotation is from Buck’s autobiographical work My Several Worlds: A Personal Record., New York: John Day, 1954, p. 250.

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