Giving Your Characters Life

I have to tell you, I loved all your comments on Friday’s post. Wasn’t that fun? It was great getting to know some of the more surprising things about you. There were a couple of details I could have lived without but for the most part, I was fascinated!

You might have figured out that I had an ulterior motive for the post. (It wasn’t just to tell you that I married a hot scuba diver, I promise.) I wanted to illustrate how each of us, no matter how “ordinary” we are, have something surprising about us. Something that might not seem to fit our personality. We are all multi-faceted.

It’s such an important concept to remember when creating characters in our novels. Developing a character who has seemingly contradictory traits, skills, habits and hobbies, and making it work, is one of the more difficult aspects of the art of writing. But it’s part of what gives your characters LIFE.

We talked about this a couple of weeks ago (Avoiding On the Nose Writing) but it’s a concept I can’t stress strongly enough. I quickly get bored with characters that never surprise me. I want you to look at your characters and ask yourself if they’re constantly doing only what would be expected of them, or if they’re actually real, rounded, interesting people. Give them some life by allowing them to be surprising in some way. Go through Friday’s comments and steal some of the interesting things people revealed about themselves!

Your Character’s Life—or Your Life?

I wanted to mention one other aspect of giving characters life. It’s something I don’t hear mentioned very often by those who teach writing, but as is so often the case, it’s something I seem to come across in my work with newer writers. It’s the idea that sometimes, to give your characters life, you need to separate them from your own life.

Here’s what I mean. It’s not uncommon that I’m working on a manuscript with an author, and discover that one of the problems keeping the story from being powerful is that one or more of the characters is not very well-developed. It feels like there’s a hole in the story, because I don’t feel like I know this character well enough.

So I’ll start talking to the author about the character, finding out what the writer thinks, what she knows about the character’s background, personality, interests, etc. I’ll ask who the character was based on. Often—bingo. There’s the issue.

Maybe the character is based on the author. Or perhaps the character was inspired by the author’s mother. Or someone else in their family. On further discussion, we’ll realize that the author was unconsciously trying to avoid revealing too much about herself through the character. She held back in fully forming her, perhaps out of a fear of vulnerability. Or maybe the author was trying to protect someone else. Or perhaps the character was based on someone with whom the author has a conflicted relationship, and so she had trouble drawing that character fully and honestly.

The point is, to give your characters life, you have to be unafraid to plumb the depths of their personalities, get into their heart and soul and truly know who they are. You can only write them with honesty if you’re unafraid of them—their dark sides, the parts of them that scare you, the parts of them that you don’t feel you know. You really have to get to know them. And if your character is based (even loosely) on someone in real life, then that connection to reality could be holding you back from creating a character who comes to life on the page.

If you have a character who is coming across a bit cardboard, or simply not as well-developed as your other characters, ask yourself if there is a personal (psychological or emotional) block that is preventing you from letting this character be real. You might find your answer.

(Or maybe not. Maybe you just need to write better.)

Food for thought, anyway.

Have you had issues with particular characters that were difficult to bring to life? How did you resolve them?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Kevin on September 21, 2011 at 6:38 AM

    wow this just helped me out immensely. I am four hundred some odd pages into the novel I will probably never have published. (laughs) but this is exactly what I needed to improve it.

  2. terri on November 10, 2009 at 1:21 PM

    >In my WIP, the two main characters represent different sides of my own personality and character.

    One is an over-educated,over-analytical, patrician who is awkward in certain social situations and doesn't make friends easily.

    (I have degrees in engineering and law and that little tidbit can shut down a conversation in a bar faster than asking everyone to take a drug test. When I have an opinion, I usually have facts, statistics, and arguments to back it up and I don't watch network TV. Tough to drop in on casual conversations.)

    The other woman is an intelligent, disorganized, chaotic, free spirit who you underestimate at first glance.

    (Despite all that education, I have flyaway hair and dress in thrift shop 'chic', can never find the file for the case I'm working on, but rarely need it because I remember every detail of the case. Do not ask me my client's phone number, I lost that post-it note weeks ago. I am often dissed and dismissed by the well-dressed 'smoothies' until I get up to make my case.)

    These two women come together to solve the crime in my story (which, BTW, is perpetuated by another woman who is heartless, ruthless, and pragmatic, another set of characteristics not unknown in engineers and lawyers)

    So, their life is my life writ large!


  3. Mechelle Fogelsong on November 9, 2009 at 11:45 PM

    >I couldn't begin writing novels until my mom passed away in 2007, because she was the paint palette that colored my life.

    Mom suffered from bipolar disorder and was never medicated. Needless to say, I have some… er… interesting stories to share. In the first year after Mom died, I wrote five novels, edited, and meticulously revised them.

    The only reason I've never submitted them to you, Ms. Gardner, is because you don't represent YA. I keep hoping you'll change your mind. When you do, watch for my name coming across the transom.

  4. Carradee on November 9, 2009 at 7:33 PM

    >I check out what they think they want out of life. I also figure out where they think they're coming from, what their goals are, and where they think they're headed. Not all share my Christian beliefs.

  5. Lori Benton on November 9, 2009 at 6:11 PM

    >I don't think I've ever struggled with characters being too based on me. From day one I've found it easier to write from the POV of my male characters, and I'm drawn to themes that are more male-oriented (like father/son), than anything else. As someone else mentioned, writing historical fiction also helps this never to become an issue. The things my characters have experienced, plus their 18C mindsets, pretty much guarantees they are going to react to situations differently than I would, even if we share some personality traits.

  6. KC Neal on November 9, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    >It's a relief to hear so many other writers have struggled with some of the same character development issues I have (I could have written some of these comments almost word for word!). Great post, and interesting comments!

  7. Homemaker, MD on November 9, 2009 at 2:49 PM

    >The timing of this post is perfect since I'm spending the next week or so focusing on the depth of characters in my novel. Thank you for taking the time to share this!

  8. Judith Mercado on November 9, 2009 at 1:58 PM

    >This wonderful post made me think of an exercise I did recently in which I analyzed all my fictional characters using the *Dante’s Inferno* template of the nine rings of Hell. I only did that because I hated Dante, which I had to read for a class, and so to make him palatable, I used him to analyze my fictional characters. Interesting discovery: as my writer skills improved over time, my characters tended to inhabit more than one ring in Hell. My first novel had characters that tended to fall into the polar opposites of Virtue and Violence. My more recent novels, by comparison, have a more balanced distribution. That, I think, is your point in encouraging us to find an unexpected characteristic in our characters; it makes our characters multi-dimensional.

  9. Liesl on November 9, 2009 at 1:58 PM

    >When I'm struggling with a character/not feeling a connection with them, I usually have to dig deeper into their past. Why are they the way they are? What events in their past shaped them? What choices in their past to they regret and shape their current behavior? These answers usually solve a lot of problems.

    The characters that are based on people I know come to life a lot quicker, but I'm careful with this. Though it might be easy for some to see where I get my inspiration, I would never openly say "this character is this person…" Too much drama to be unleashed. Honestly I don't know how people can write memoir. That takes guts!

  10. Elisabeth Black on November 9, 2009 at 12:03 PM

    >Both my protags so far have been women coming of age, and started out sort of pale or undeveloped – promising, but holding back. It was such fun when the situation pushed them out on a limb and they came to life. In both instances, I first had a serious questioning phase: "Why am I writing about this woman, anyway?".

    Now I need to make sure the initial phase of "stuff happening to them that lights them up" is not so long as to turn off a reader, right?

  11. LynnRush on November 9, 2009 at 11:43 AM

    >Great post. I like how Donald Maass put it in his ACFW one day portion of the conference. He had us take our character, think of something they'd never do, then have them do it.

    He just forced us to keep digging deeper. He'd have us do one thing, then ask how to make it worse. Then, even worse, then. . . you get my drift.

    It's been fun taking what I learned from his class and going through some of my characters. 🙂

  12. Carolyn V. on November 9, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    >Good advice! I have had very good comments about my characters on this ms (which I must admit I am so grateful for), but have had some stinker characters in the past. They make me want to pull out my hair.

  13. Glynis on November 9, 2009 at 11:04 AM

    >I realised quite early on that my MC was too sweet. She was a little to good, so I added a chink in her perfect world.

  14. Kat Harris on November 9, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    >This post is spot on.

    I tried to base my character in my current NaNo book on someone I knew, someone with whom I'd once had a rocky friendship, but I found that the connection stifled the writing.

    The words didn't start moving until I let go of that connection and started letting the character be herself.

  15. Anonymous on November 9, 2009 at 10:59 AM

    >Great post. Love your positive voice. 🙂

  16. Mike Dellosso on November 9, 2009 at 10:51 AM

    >Man, Rachelle, another great post. Characterization is often difficult because it does make us vulnerable to exposing our own fears, weaknesses, sins, and so much more. When writing my newest novel, I had a very frustrating time developing the main character who wrestles with all kinds of fear-related issues. Finally, I realized what it was. My recent battle with colon cancer left me emotionally dry and battling my own fears. Once I recognized that and embraced my own weaknesses, things started flowing and I think (hope) I wrote a fully-developed, engaging character.

  17. Timothy Fish on November 9, 2009 at 10:45 AM

    >I assumed Tim of Angle was being facetious—I laughed, anyway. (Maybe I was laughing at him instead of with him. Hmm?) At any rate, none of us are completely one dimensional. It fascinates me that everyone from the saintly prayer warrior to the serial killer sees himself as a pretty good person. So while it is sometimes beneficial to have a character who is evil all the time, in real life, our evil villain may have bought flowers for him mother for Mother’s Day. Whatever evil he many be planning, he probably isn’t doing it for the sake of being evil, but believes that in his situation it is the best option.

    Anonymous, maybe it’s just a Metroplex thing, but I’ve heard it many times.

  18. T. Anne on November 9, 2009 at 10:44 AM

    >I did this in the very first book I attempted to write. The story floundered because I could never see my self in anything but ordinary circumstances and wanted a HEA all the way through. No conflict, just calm and happy. I consider that book a teacher, as I do the two after that. They taught me great lessons but are for private viewing purposes only. Great post Rachelle.

  19. Anonymous on November 9, 2009 at 10:38 AM

    >Q to Richard Mabry: WHERE in TX do you live? I also live in TX (in a big city) but I've never heard that one before…

    Try to avoid boring people if you want interesting characters.

  20. Matilda McCloud on November 9, 2009 at 10:35 AM

    >It took two novels for me to get to the point where I was making up characters and not basing them on people I knew. I realized recently that the (possibly) fatal flaw in novel #2 is that the main character is based too closely on me. One way I'm trying to resolve this problem is to give my ms to beta readers to get a new perspective, ideas about possible flaws, dark side, contradictions etc. I'm finding while writing novel #3 that it's so much easier to do this with characters you make up. I think you should share emotional truths with your characters so they come alive and seem real, but it's probably best to try and make up most of the other stuff.

  21. Camille Cannon Eide on November 9, 2009 at 10:02 AM

    >I can identify with the 'shallow' character issue, and can relate to this post on too many levels. I was actually trying to write a character that was very different from me, and deep down I didn't really understand her or know what her emotions felt like. I am rewriting my novel with resolving this and other issues in mind. But it's tough to keep the new perspective. I like the idea of writing the character in first person for a while—I'm going to try it.

    I was working on a new novel a while back and started fleshing out the characters by writing diary pages for them, to get a feel for their voice, mindset, attitude & outlook on life, their concerns, desires and fears. Just a couple pages really brought them to life.

    Thanks for the post, Rachelle.

  22. Rachelle on November 9, 2009 at 9:58 AM

    >Tim of Angle–I heartily disagree with you. (But maybe you were being facetious?) I believe everybody's multi-faceted in their interests, personalities, or some other aspect of self. At the very least, nobody is either "all good" or "all bad" but we all have elements of both. (Most of us are fairly successful at keeping our dark sides at bay.) And I believe everyone is interesting to someone.

    In any case, the point is not whether you believe real people are inherently interesting or multi-faceted, it's that your fictional characters must be, if you want people to read the book.

    Of course, a character could be interesting in his specific lack of interesting-ness, his single-minded focus that makes him uniquely UN-multifaceted. Paradox, huh?

  23. Roger on November 9, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    >There are good ideas in these comments. I particularly like the separate-story idea, writing a few pages from a character's POV just to find out who the character is, and the heart-to-heart talks.

    I had trouble finding out who a few of my characters were, and a friend and fellow writer suggested that I interview them. It helped. During one interview, the character even lit up a cigarette and blew smoke in my face.

    Still, another character would give me only stock answers, so I went back to my friend with the trouble with that one character, and my friend suggested, "Get him drunk and interview him again." It worked. I found out all sorts of things about that character.

  24. Jen Oliver on November 9, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    >I have one totally flat character in an otherwise lively novel and I can't get him to be real. I wanted him to be villainous and unlikable, but duplicitous enough to dupe and take advantange my very clever MC on a variety of levels. But he was so flat that even I wasn't buying it–he just made my MC look annoying and naive. A few weeks ago I realized I was projecting feelings about an old boyfriend (anger, desire for vindication and for others to see him as I did) onto this character; my feelings were so one-sided that so was he! Reading this post just confirms the obvious–I need to let this guy and my feelings about him go, along with the cardboard cut-out of him I'd created in my novel. So, I am giving him (the character, not the ex-boyfriend) the ax and starting fresh!

  25. Tim of Angle on November 9, 2009 at 8:52 AM

    >'We are all multi-faceted.'

    No, we're not. You are deceived by a self-selecting unrepresentative sample.

    Many people have no facets. Because of who you are and what you do, you happen not to have to deal with them very often, neither do you notice them when you do, because (almost by definition) they are not interesting.

    This is an inconvenient truth that many people ignore, to their peril and that of the body politic.

  26. Cassandra Frear on November 9, 2009 at 8:40 AM

    >Oh my, how I love these posts about the craft of writing.

    You've got me thinking about empathy. This quality, so hard to develop in ourselves as we interact with others in our real lives, is precisely the thing we need for rich character development.

    It's a new thought. Thanks!

  27. Richard Mabry on November 9, 2009 at 8:25 AM

    >As we say in Texas, "You've stopped preachin' and gone to meddlin'." I was so proud of completing my first novel until my first reader/biggest fan/most particular critic pointed out that there was virtually no conflict in it. I hate conflict, so I had to tell myself that the story isn't real and the conflict ends when I turn away from the computer. Then it became easier to create characters with different characteristics than plain vanilla me. And I must say, they're more interesting than I am.

  28. Timothy Fish on November 9, 2009 at 8:22 AM

    >We all know that novels are about how the protagonist changes. One of the difficulties I ran into with For the Love of a Devil was that the protagonist, Geoff, couldn’t change. I don’t mean to say that he didn’t want to change or that it was difficult for him to change; I mean that the story demands that this character remain rock solid, unshakable. To do otherwise would be untrue to the historical event that inspired it. The way I resolved this problem was by changing the world around him. It’s a matter of perspective. We know nothing about a character except from what the other characters and the world in which he exists reveal about him. By moving the world, we can make even the most immoveable characters seem like they are in motion.

  29. CKHB on November 9, 2009 at 7:57 AM

    >In the first draft of my novel, my main character only talked to her step brother via email. A beta reader pointed out that these exchanges were kind of jarring, and I realized that it was because I'd distanced myself from a character that I just didn't understand.

    I then spent some time talking with internet friends (such as those on the NaNoWriMo forums) to ask them about sibling relationships until I "got" who this step brother was, then I rewrote. A later beta reader said that this guy was in fact one of his favorite characters! That made me really happy, because I'd worked hard to get into his head and bring him to life.

  30. Amy Sue Nathan on November 9, 2009 at 7:51 AM

    >Recently I did feel as if one of my characters was underdeveloped, and I wrote about two pages from her POV, that was an intentional backstory dump, just for me. I didn't self-edit, I just wrote. I closed my eyes and allowed things about her to come out, things I didn't know. With these revelations I am better able to help her navigate through the story with the right motivations, sprinkling in the details when and if necessary. Before this I think she was a bit shallow, and while she's not all that likable in the beginning of the book, there is much more depth to her throughout.

  31. Johnnie on November 9, 2009 at 7:46 AM

    >This post and these comments have been helpful and thought-provoking. I had a hard time with the female protagonist for a novel that's been relegated to the back of the closet. I joked that she and I had heart-to-heart talks, but even that didn't seem to help. When I started another novel, the female protagonist took on a life of her own quickly and with confidence. The whys and wherefores are still a mystery, but I hope to pull out that first novel and try again sometime.

  32. BJ on November 9, 2009 at 7:34 AM

    >When I have a character I can't quite fathom, I write a separate story for them, usually interacting with the character I need them to be closest to. For instance, for characters who were to be married, I wrote their first date.

    Of course, I discovered that the unfathomable character was the wrong partner for the other character, which changed everything…

  33. Krista Phillips on November 9, 2009 at 7:30 AM

    >My first MC in LOL is probably the character most like me… but wow, I also put a lot of things into that are NOT me, because after all, she's her own individual:-)

    My most recent heroine was a little difficult for me. It took me to the last 1/4th of the book to really understand her… now to the task of going back and weaving that new understanding throughout the first part of the book. It's there… but as an author I didn't understand it so I can add little things that give her the depth I found as I wrote.

  34. Author Sandra D. Bricker on November 9, 2009 at 7:28 AM

    >This is awesome food for thought. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. During that time, I wrote a story (fiction) based on the journey. Several people I really respected told me afterward that they were a little surprised when they read it, that they thought I could do better, that the characters seemed one-dimensional. I set the book aside and went to work on other things. Five years later, I wondered about exploring the cancer thing again. This time, with all that space and time between me and my monster, I was able to write something that really resonated with people. Standing outside of the experience, I think I was far more able to dig into the darker side of those feelings without bringing all the baggage (such as fear, confusion, personal issues) along on the journey.

    Have I mentioned that I LOVE THIS BLOG? I look forward to starting my mornings by reading what you all have to say.

  35. Sharon A. Lavy on November 9, 2009 at 7:25 AM

    >I should have said I hate confrontation. It never worked for me.

  36. Sharon A. Lavy on November 9, 2009 at 7:24 AM

    >I hate conflict. So I have trouble letting it all hang out. But then when I write realistically crit partners think my characters need to apologize.

  37. Lisa Jordan on November 9, 2009 at 7:11 AM

    >In my current WIP, I had to change the heroine's name & physical appearance in order to get her to really open up. She had to become someone new because the old character just wasn't working. Then I started asking those tough questions–the spiritual lie she believed, why, her greatest fear, why, her greatest dream, why. Those answers helped define what kind of person she was.

    As a writer, I've learned through the years that your Christian characters should not be perfect. They need to have flaws and say those shocking things.

    When I struggle with a scene and trying to see it through my character's eyes, I'll write it in first person point of view, and then go back and change it to third. That way I really know what the character is seeing and feeling, so I can write those emotions (without naming the emotion) into the scene.

  38. Gwen Stewart on November 9, 2009 at 5:57 AM

    >My MC was too much like me. To change that, I crafted her to be uncaring about something which I hold very, very dear. I made her unsuccessful in an area I find success. But, I made her excel where I struggle and have the chutzpah to say things I would never, ever say.

    She is not like me now. Parts of me will always show up in the story, I think, because we cannot escape our paradigm completely (not completely). But now, she is her own person.

    And she's a lot more fun to write. Now what does that say about yours truly? Am I that much of a snoozer? LOL

  39. Jessica on November 9, 2009 at 5:44 AM

    >I think you're right about this. I did have a character who was underdeveloped, and out of all the characters, she was the closest to my personality. She was also super boring. LOL It really was a mental thingy and I had to try to work past that, but it was pretty tough. I learned alot from that experience.
    Very cool post!

  40. Ellen B on November 9, 2009 at 4:54 AM

    >There is a character in my current WIP who isn't based on me, but is a similar age, from a similar background and has a similar lifestyle. She is by far the hardest character I've ever had to write, and this post has been really helpful.

    The ironic thing is, any of my friends who read about her say 'I felt like I should like her, because she's like you, but I hate her.'

  41. wendy on November 9, 2009 at 4:16 AM

    >When writing characters based on people close to home, I've no problems fleshing them out. Even characters based on a figment of the imagination are not difficult. However in fantasy stories I find difficulty giving depth to non-human characters. I dislike novels with non-human characters where the only differences are physical. I much prefer novels with characters that are obviously from a different culture, race and mindset. I hope to learn from these people an outlook that our current society hasn't yet realised or evolved to. That's the advantage of fantasy. You can create the unrealised and introduce new trends and ways of thought. However to create a fantasy character that is multi-dimensional – and perhaps more advanced than we of the cursed human race – is a huge challenge.
    Perhaps a possible answer might be in creating a character of great contrasts, e.g.,a character of immense simplicity, with child-like traits of gentleness and playfulness while at the same time being an enlightened being of great wisdom. This gifts, however, are rarely displayed outwardly due to the character's lack of ego and quiet confidence.

    But then that character should also be flawed in some way, too, but in a way that makes them appear even greater as this imperfection provides another contrast and hasn't prevented them from being who they are.

    Jesus, I think, was the ultimate (partly) non-human character – an unforgettable combination of the human and the Divine. No mere human mind could invent such an incredible, fascinating person/character which is one validation of His existence and the truth of His words.

  42. nightwriter on November 9, 2009 at 3:41 AM

    >Seems we all have a tendency to base characters on people we know. But I like reading for excitement and escape–not to be depressed or upset about fictional events and lives. If fiction parallels real life too closely, I'd rather watch a good escapist movie or TV show. Mad Men, anyone?

  43. Maya / מיה on November 9, 2009 at 3:23 AM

    >Every novel I work on is less closely based on my own life. I think this is a good thing. In fact, writing historical fiction has freed me because I'm no longer worried that people will see my characters as "me" when they aren't (or worse, when they are and I reveal something I don't want to reveal).

    I didn't respond to the Friday Fun post… if I had, there probably would have been two categories of things I could have said. There are the funny things that might mildly surprise people but fit totally with the way they see me (i.e., my freshman year in college I bought a ring with a marijuana leaf on it thinking it was a maple leaf), and then there are a few things that would completely shock my casual acquaintances. I'm not comfortable revealing those things online or in my books (so long as they can be identified with me), so the characters based on me too closely are necessarily guarded. At the same time, I think I value the fact that I have a depth of experiences I don't share with strangers. I know that it has made me a deeper and stronger person, and I love that I don't feel I need to prove that to other people anymore. Honesty is the hardest thing about writing… I don't think we even realize the way our visions of ourselves and our characters conform to our expectations and norms, and the way real people (if we're totally honest about ourselves) don't.

    Great post!

  44. Cristin on November 9, 2009 at 3:04 AM

    >I have a character that is similar to my father in the way he interacts with people and handles emotions. But I have a terrible relationship with my father. Really awful. When people critiqued scenes written in this character's P.O.V. they often said they felt like they were being held at arm's length, not being allowed to see the world through his eyes.

    I asked God about it and realized that I harbored unforgiveness toward my dad. I had to actively work through it. Forgive. Let go. Also, I started writing my first draft in first person, even though my book is in third. This forced me to identify with this character and really get into his head. I switch it back to third later, and I've found the extra work is far worth it for the depth of character that comes out.

  45. arlee bird on November 9, 2009 at 2:31 AM

    >In order to really figure out what a character is like I go to where that person lives. What magazines or books do they read, are there pictures on the walls, what do they have laying around, what's in the refrigerator and cupboards. Then I continue to the car they drive, where they work, where they grew up, how other people see them. And so on, each new thing I see in my mind about this person helps me to envison something else new about them until I have a pretty complete picture of who and what this character is.