Character: Everyone Has a Story | Sara Biren

When I think about character, the word that immediately comes to mind is sonder.

You won’t find sonder in any standard dictionary, but you will find it in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig. 


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.

The first time I encountered the term, I was working at a marketing agency and writing copy for a website that included this video on its homepage:

I must have watched it ten times in a row before moving on to my next task, and I’ve probably watched it a hundred times since. And still, it gives me the chills. I think about this all the time, that the people I encounter on a daily basis—the cashier at the grocery store, the crossing guard on Meadow Lane, the barista at Cafe Harmony—are more than background characters in my life. They have their own rich, complex lives. They are the main characters in their own stories: 

“They carry on invisibly around you, bearing the accumulated weight of their own ambitions, friends, routines, mistakes, worries, triumphs, and inherited craziness. When your life moves on to the next scene, theirs flickers in place.”

As many times as I’ve seen that video, those last few phrases bring tears to my eyes and an ache in my heart. Every single time. And for a lot of reasons. 

Yes, I want to remind myself that everyone I encounter each day has their own story but I also think of this video when I’m writing, when I’m developing characters and their own vivid, complex lives. Even in fiction, their stories matter: the accumulated weight of their own ambitions, their routines, their mistakes, their worries, and their triumphs.

I handle them with care. 


  1. I sometimes imagine 'proximate' people as puzzle pieces that continually move and change shape, making seeing them in the bigger sense of the word quite challenging, particularly when they fall to the floor, or don't quite fit. Sometimes the ones we can't connect with are likely to be the most interesting.


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