Bringing Your Characters To Life
Every memorable novel can be roughly divided into two moving parts: plot and characters. Plot, of course, is important—after all, a book in which nothing happens isn't much of a story. But characters are equally critical, if not more so. Oftentimes, though, writers neglect characterization to focus on plot, and as a result, otherwise solid stories fail to thrive.
As authors, the temptation—especially in an age where movies and television endlessly bombard us with explosions and daring stunts—is to rely on action to move our stories forward. Feel like things are lagging in that latest scene? Throw in a good bank heist or a meteorite speeding toward Earth! Right?
Well, yes and no.
Plot is wonderful, and well-executed twists and turns can keep your readers up all night. But there's a giant caveat for using plot as a vehicle to drive your story forward:
Plot is only as compelling as the characters it's happening to.
To illustrate this, I want you to imagine you're reading a story in which someone's just wired a car bomb to a Mercedes parked in front of a liquor store. For now, the car's just sitting there, but the moment the key turns in the ignition, the entire thing will go up in flames.
Do you find this scenario interesting? Maybe...but probably in a clinical sort of way, at best. You may kind of want to know if the bomb will blow someone up, but there's no real investment here, because all I've provided is plot, without character.
Now, imagine a harried groom is driving that same Mercedes. He's running late for his own wedding. After waking up to a flat tire, he's borrowed the car from his neighbor (who, unbeknownst to him, is a vicious Mafioso with a lot of enemies), and has just now stopped to buy a bottle of champagne. He and his fiancée celebrate every special occasion with a very specific vintage, and he's determined to show up with this bottle in hand, knowing how much the gift will mean to her. Little does he suspect that a bomb now awaits him—one that's actually intended for his Mafioso neighbor! He rushes from the store, champagne in tow, then jumps into the driver's seat and starts the engine...
Suddenly, things have become a lot more interesting! You likely care more, because there's someone to care about.
Here's my point: while plot can be a fantastic tool for bringing your readers on a literary adventure, many novice writers make the mistake of plotting heavily and forgetting to build their characters. Yet focusing exclusively on plot leaves a story feeling thin and hollow.
Remember, your characters are the living, beating heart of your story, and when they come alive, your plot does, too.
As a writer, crafting unforgettable characters should always be your first priority. So, how do you do that, exactly? There's no simple formula, but I'll discuss a few fundamentals to help flesh out those people you've invented.
1. Remember, your character existed long before you put pen to page.
Creating an entire person from scratch is difficult; it feels a bit like trying to sculpt beautiful art from a shapeless block of clay, except someone's blindfolded you and you don't have any tools but your bare hands. Similarly, when writing, it's incredibly difficult to tell in those first few pages who all these brand-new people will turn out to be. Sometimes, a lot of word-smithing happens before you've discerned your characters' true personalities.
I'm probably worst than most. When I first started writing fiction, I'd spend 50-100 pages getting to know my cast. I'd waste a lot of time shaping, exploring, and coming to know them gradually. In later edits, this usually meant I had to throw away the first 40-50 pages of whatever I'd written, simply because my opening chapters were filled with bland people devoid of well-developed personalities. Inevitably, those pages didn't contain a whole lot of actual story, either.
Is it possible to write this way and actually make it work? Sure. But understanding who makes up your cast before you begin will you save you a boatload of time and energy, and in addition, allow you to portray more vibrant characters from page one.
(Note: I'm not advocating for plotting over pantsing, as I'm about the most dedicated pantser around. Just...get to know your people before you dive in.)
The key here is doing the formative work of solidifying your characters before you start your actual story. And it's important to remember that the beginning of your novel doesn't coincide with your characters' beginnings—even if you populate your book with teenagers, they must have been around long enough for their history and experiences to shape them. They have likes and dislikes, quirks and habits, foibles and catch phrases—all of which evolved long before your opening scene.
Treat your characters as pre-existing people. Get to know their behavioral ins and outs before you type your first word, and when you do sit down to write, larger-than-life personalities will leap off the page. This is especially important in your opening passages, when you have limited time to hook your readers into committing to your book.
As an example, in Leigh Bardugo's wonderful Grisha series, the main character, Alina Starkov, has a notable distaste for herring. Alina's aversion is established early on, then referenced throughout the series. While the character's hatred for salted fish is never fully explained and never influences the plot in any measurable way, it does make her feel incredibly human, and establishes her as a person who already had preferences before the story began. Just this single attribute, brought up subtly and repeatedly, paints Alina as a living, breathing person who comes alive in the reader's mind.
As an exercise, think about one of your own main characters, then consider the questions below:
As a child, what did your character want to be when s/he grew up? Did they achieve this dream, or fall short?
What's your character's favorite food? Conversely, is there anything they absolutely refuse to eat?
Does your character attend a religious institution? Or avoid them at all costs?
What's your character's worst bad habit? Do they chain smoke when stressed, or always let calls go to voicemail?
What does your character secretly do when alone that they would never do around others?
After a stressful day, what does your character find most relaxing?
What hobby is your character most passionate about?
Does your character have a "type" they're most attracted to?
What's your character's favorite article of clothing?
What does your character's room look like? Is it messy? Organized? Does your character start feeling uncomfortable if a single thing is out of place?
Does your character have a favorite book, one they've read over and over again?
Does your character tend to be on time? Or are they always late? Do they sometimes not bother to show up, even when promised?
If your character's house caught on fire, what's the one thing they would save?
How does your character approach money? Do they freely give to those less fortunate, or hoard every penny and weigh every purchase?
Is your character spontaneous, or do they plan life out in advance?
Does your character have a catch phrase—something they say frequently, but which nobody around them does?
At first glance, these questions may appear superficial, but they're designed to get you thinking not only about your character's preferences, but how those preferences formed. Each answer undoubtedly has a story behind it—a reason why your character developed that way. You can choose any of the above questions, then deepen its answer by considering how your character's unique feature evolved. Imagine there's a story behind why your character developed this belief or habit, a specific piece of their past that still shapes their present.
Here's an example scene using question 2, in which I said my character absolutely refuses to eat pecans.
Gideon planted his elbows against the diner's flimsy table, then resumed picking pecans off his slice of pie. A sugared mound of nuts grew beside the chipped plate.
In the dim glow of evening, Maria eyed him from across the table. "What're you doing? What'd that pie ever do to you?"
Gideon ducked his head. "Pecans annoy me."
"You realize how ridiculous that sounds, right?"
Did he? Just glancing at the glistening pile beside his plate coiled his insides into a hard knot. The damn things smelled, too—snatches of that awful summer wafted up, assaulting his nose with recollections of Maggie. He remembered those blistering dog days of August, how they'd gathered fallen pecans almost every day, then stuffed themselves until their fingers hurt from cracking nuts and their bellies ached with fullness.
"They remind me of my sister," he said, throat tight.
Maria frowned. "I didn't know you had a sister."
Pain barreled into him like a freight train, just as raw and unapologetic as it had been on that crystal August day when Maggie had drowned in the pond by the pecan grove. Breath short, he pushed the pie plate away.
"I don't," he said. "Not anymore."
Here, I've used a seemingly innocuous idiosyncrasy to reveal a character's past. Even better, going forward, I can now remind my reader of the deeper meaning behind my character's habit by simply referencing the habit itself. (Any time I want to remind my reader of Gideon's dead sister, I can do so by having him refuse to eat pecans.) Additionally, while some of the answers to the list above should be communicated to your reader, note that you do not need to include the answer to every single question in your novel. As Ernest Hemingway once famously said, only 10% of what you know about your story should make it onto the page, while the other 90% remains beneath the surface, where it serves to shape events but doesn't get articulated. Merely knowing the answers to the questions above will allow you to write consistent, three-dimensional people—each with a pre-existing life of his or her own.
2. Pay special attention to your character's introductory description.
We've probably all been guilty of thin character description at one time or another, and we've all definitely come across it while reading. At its most clichéd, character description delivers nothing more than the superficial—think "emerald green eyes" and "rivers of jet-black hair." Too often, authors focus solely on their protagonists' looks and fail to dig deeper, which leaves characters feeling two-dimensional.
Sure, in real life, the first things we notice about people often center around physical traits. But for most, this goes far beyond noting eye color, hair color, and fabulously structured jaw lines. We also use outward appearances to draw conclusions about personality. We assume that someone who stands straight and tall, with shoulders back, is confident. Perhaps someone blinks a lot, which leads us to think they're unsure of themselves. Maybe they tend to stare into the distance, hold eye contact for an unusually long time, or repeatedly muss their hair while deep in thought. All these can be surmised at a glance, serve as differentiating features, and have the added benefit of communicating something about a person's internal world.
Use this to your advantage! Part of building a three-dimensional protagonist means layering external attributes with internal ones, and the best opportunity for this is when your character first appears.
One of my critique partners, Lacie Waldon, does this beautifully. In her upcoming Pop Tarts and Grenades, she introduces her main character, Dillon, through the eyes of another central protagonist, Josie. As readers, this is our first glimpse of him:
My words catch in my throat when I feel Dillon come up behind me. He doesn’t even have to speak for me to know he’s arrived. A hundred students outside, yet it’s one person who sends my skin prickling to attention. I’ve begun to think of this response my body has to him as a specially tuned awareness of evil.
A tense scene follows, in which Josie and Dillon verbally spar over an event that took place well before the book's opening scene—Dillon's father was arrested for constructing a Ponzi scheme that took advantage of families all over town. As the whistle-blower, Josie has watched her parents lose their savings, and now she can no longer afford the trendy wardrobe and hairstyle she once enjoyed. Dillon, still bitter over her perceived betrayal, publicly taunts her about her new brown-haired look, stating it's a physical reminder that she's not who everyone thought she was.
“And what’s going to remind me, Dillon?” I ask. “You know I’m just as partial to those natural highlights of yours as you are.” When he laughs at my air quotes over the words, I grin back at him. Everyone else might be under the delusion his sun-kissed surf god image is a result of blessed genetics, but I’ve seen his hair stiffened into ridiculous spikes from the lemon juice he uses to tweak the color. “But shouldn’t your devil horns be coming in by now?”
Wow. This is a fantastic character introduction, and I've chosen it because it manages to pull quintuple duty. Note the absence of extensive physical description—instead, Lacie focuses on Josie's visceral reaction to Dillon. Even then, we come away with a solid picture of Dillon's physical characteristics (the "sun-kissed surf god image" accomplishes this in impressively few words) and have a palpable sense of the pre-existing history between these two characters, which lends both of them depth in a single stroke. The scene's antagonistic exchange also serves to infuse the story with tension, establishes Josie's fiery personality, and lays the foundation for one of the primary conflicts in the book: later, these friends-turned-enemies will be forced to work together when a sinister prankster targets them at school. Contrast this to the standard "litany of physical characteristics" approach that populates so much YA, and I think you'll agree that Lacie's method is both more interesting and more effective.
Think of your character's first appearance as an opportunity to paint both an external picture and an internal one. Even better if you can convey a sense of history and tension at the same time.
As an exercise, I recommend finding a good public place to sit undisturbed and people-watch (Starbucks, the library, etc.) for several minutes. Bring a notebook to jot down ideas. Observe at least 5 people, then draw conclusions about their personalities based on what you see. What physical characteristics or behaviors led to your opinions? Write everything down. Later, choose a character from your current work-in-progress. Locate the first mention of him or her within your story, then make a list of every character attribute the reader can glean from this introduction (green eyes, short stature, wears glasses, seems nervous, whatever). How many of these are external attributes, and how many are internal? If you didn't list at least two internal qualities, choose two traits from your people-watching exercise that your character shares. Using your notes as a guide, brainstorm ways in which your character's internal attributes might be observed at a glance.
3. Giving your character an unusual physical feature, habit or belonging can help anchor the character in your reader's psyche.
Consider one of the most iconic characters in literature—Sherlock Holmes, whose name evokes a powerful image. Maybe you envision a deerstalker hat, or a tall, shadowy figure smoking a pipe. Regardless, Sherlock's character is so well-drawn that the mere mention of the famous fictional detective conjures a solid picture—one that comes complete with physical accessories.
Using such props is a simple way to differentiate between characters that might otherwise blur together. Perhaps your protagonist has an extraordinary scar, constantly cleans his glasses, or never goes anywhere without his sparkly unicorn backpack. Regardless, drawing a strong association between your character and a tangible object or feature can solidify him or her as a distinct entity in your reader's mind. Again, this is most useful in a book's opening scenes, when readers are introduced to multiple characters at once and asked to remember who all these brand-new people are.
Another of my critique partners, Windy Prasert, utilizes this technique in her upcoming debut, The Comment Box. Her protagonist, Rick Holliday, functions as the live-in caretaker for a secluded cemetery in Oregon, where he wants nothing more than to tend to the grounds and retreat from the world. However, Rick has a secret—he sees and communicates with the graveyard's dead residents, who form a colorful cast of larger-than-life personalities. Despite his unique talent, Rick is a quiet character. He's reclusive and insecure, and risks being overshadowed by the wonderfully outlandish residents. To avoid this, Windy bestows upon Rick his very own unique feature: she gives him a stutter.
As a result, Rick becomes instantly memorable. In one of the opening scenes, he sits down for his weekly meeting with the residents, an event he routinely dreads:
Desperate to get the meeting moving, Rick turned to Madge. “Last week you announced you'd be s-starting a cooking c-c-class. How's that going?"
Stiffly, Madge untied and retied her apron strings, lowering her eyes. "I held classes every afternoon at two, and neither of them showed up." Her chin quivered.
“Oh my God,” Stephanie said. “You're the only one who still eats, and there's like, no point. Food drops right through us.”
“It's the thought that counts,” Madge retorted, her voice shaky. She turned to the fire, fanning the air stiffly. “Can’t you turn down the heat in here, Rick?”
Herbert huffed. “There she goes with her hot flashes again.”
Shrugging, Madge deliberately fanned herself harder.
Rick forged ahead. “Halloween is c-c-coming, and I will be patrolling the g-grounds again. Although last year we only had a m-minor issue with some kids TPing the g-gate."
As you can see, Rick is surrounded by loud personalities, including Madge, the menopausal housewife, Herbert, the cantankerous old grouch, and Stephanie, the gum-chewing, air-headed child of the 1980s. Yet Rick still holds his own, simply because Windy renders him unforgettable by giving him such a unique and memorable feature. Of course, the stutter has multiple purposes: it factors heavily into Rick's past, affects his current view of himself, and plays a critical role in his character arc.
It also creates an unforgettable character.
This can just as easily be accomplished by giving your character a distinct physical feature or belonging—does your protagonist always wear a flowered trench coat? Does he keep a cigarette stored behind his ear at all times? Does she blink furiously whenever she lies? Does he have a scar across his jaw that nobody knows the origin of, but which everybody speculates about? As long as you consistently remind your reader of the feature you've chosen, you can use just about anything.
4. Your character is not perfect—nor should they be. The most compelling characters not only have flaws, they often behave in contradictory ways.
How many people have you met—ever—who are wholly bad or wholly good? Think about it...I'll wait.
The likely answer is none. Humans are complex enough that we all possess both noble qualities and flaws—though literature may ask you to believe otherwise. In books, villains are often portrayed as thoroughly evil, while heroes are frequently rendered pure-hearted and faultless.
Not only is this unrealistic, it's also uninteresting.
Sure, it's tempting to create a protagonist who's whip-smart, gorgeous, dresses fantastically, and knows how to kick serious butt. As authors, we all have some natural tendency to draw on the reservoir of our own daydreams when writing—and who doesn't wonder what it would be like to be good at just about everything?
The truth is, though, that nobody is perfect. Your readers are probably all wonderful people (book-lovers always are), but they also deal with doubts, insecurities, and flaws that influence their behavior and make them who they are.
Construct your characters similarly. Highlighting a hero's flaws not only humanizes him, it also allows readers to relate on a much deeper level. Allow your audience to find pieces of themselves in your characters, and you'll earn their loyalty far more effectively than you would with a picture-perfect hero.
This goes for villains, too. The most believable villains aren't completely evil, and the very best ones are complicated. Creating a compelling antagonist means writing a character that's complex, multi-faceted, and oftentimes goes so far as to contradict his or her own behavior.
Hannibal Lecter is an excellent example. As one of the most memorable antagonists in fiction, Thomas Harris's cannibal villain is a walking bundle of contradictions. What makes him so unforgettable (and so frightening) is that he possesses several redeeming qualities alongside his cruelty and brutality. In one scene, he cuts off a man's face, and yet in another, he appoints himself Clarice Starling's protector. He also kills people and eats them, yet travels in the highest circles of society and displays refined tastes in music, wine and the culinary arts. He's fascinating because he manages to embrace these seemingly irreconcilable differences. He's consistently contradictory, and his bizarre mix of evil and admirable qualities makes him larger-than-life.
Similarly, some of the most memorable protagonists in literature are portrayed as good people with notable flaws: think Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones, and Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby. With this in mind, consider your own hero and villain—perhaps they have more in common than you initially suspected.
As an exercise, I invite you to rewrite a scene from your current work-in-progress. Start by identifying your character's most defining personality characteristic, then find a scene which most strongly exemplifies that characteristic. Rewrite the scene you chose, except this time, have your character display the exact opposite characteristic. If you chose a scene in which your hero is selfless, have them do something selfish. If you chose a scene in which your villain is cruel, have them do something kind. This can be a small action; the purpose is to explore your character's ability to contradict themselves. Oftentimes, this exercise results in a much more interesting scene than the original, or at the very least, shows you how versatile your character can be.
Hopefully, utilizing the techniques outlined above will provide a launching place to deepen characters throughout your story. Of course, character motivations and a clear character arc are still vitally important, but using these guidelines as a starting place will render your characters more memorable.
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