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?