Breathe Life Into Your Characters

Writers are told to breathe life into your characters. But how? Some how-to experts claim that to write believable characters you must fill out page after page identifying every mundane detail of their lives. Is it wrong to do so? No. Some writers may need tool to learn who their characters are. Unfortunately, many writers take this advice to heart and spend days, weeks, months crafting the “perfect character” whose wooden speech and actions leave readers cold. There are four basic points you need to understand in order to create realistic, relatable characters.

Photograph of of a wooden, blank-faced figurine controlled by strings. Breathe life into your characters by making them more than a wooden marionette.

The Basics

Yes, your character needs a name, a background, and likes and dislikes. But details will not make your character real. Breathing life into your characters takes understanding people and, dare I say it, liking people. More importantly, it takes understanding yourself. If you don’t understand why and how you react to the triumphs and tragedies of your life, your characters will fall flatter.

No, you don’t need a degree in psychology, but you need to understand basic personality types and how they are likely to react to different trials and triumphs.

Don’t know where to start? Document your daily emotional reactions. Explore why you reacted that way.

For resources in print, go to your public library. Look for resources in the juvenile section. Ask your librarian for a recommendation. Another great resource is Stanislavski’s books on Method Acting (An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.)

Inner Life

Once you understand how distinct personalities respond to different pressures, you have the beginnings of motive and the beginning of your character’s inner life.

Everyone has an inner life. It can be voices in our head or pictures or a movie complete with a soundtrack. Inner life is a melding of our past, our present, and our dreams. Rarely are inner voices all positive or all negative.

That inner life often conflicts with the outer life. And that conflict is often the source of the lie we tell ourselves. To give your readers a character they care about, give your character a lie. Intertwine their lie with their desire and the theme of the story and you have the makings of a memorable character.

Notice, character roles like protagonist, heroine, antagonist, or villain are important to the story, but not what makes your characters come to life.

The Rhythm

A wooden marionette with hair, a painted face and a dress but still attached to strings.

Every person has a rhythm to the way they move and speak and live. You know people who speak slowly or rapidly. They often move in the same rhythm in which they speak. They see the world differently. And they don’t trust the same things, nor do they attack problems in the same way.

Give your characters unique rhythms. The college educated kid uses words differently than the kid who’s street smart. 

To the college educated kid, the world is a game to outsmart. The street kid sees the world as something out to get him if he doesn’t move fast enough. They each move, speak, plan, and react in a different rhythm.

Be mindful of the rhythms you give your characters. Sometimes the rhythm of sets one character in conflict with another. 

What Is Extraordinary

Great Characters are the key to great fiction.

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass also said that it’s possible to create the breakout novel. All it requires is to find what is extraordinary in ordinary people. I’d go a little farther. I’d say that most people have a bit of extraordinary in them. Many of us never find that one extraordinary thing within us. To find it, the writer has to be a keen observer of other people and themselves. Especially of themselves. 

There is a spark in most people. The thing that lights them up and spreads the joy or enthusiasm they have. Or maybe it’s the tiny spark that keeps them going no matter how badly life piles it on.

Often in great juvenile fiction, the character’s extraordinary bit is pretty clear. What makes Sherlock Holmes extraordinary? It’s more than magic that makes Harry Potter extraordinary. Before you decide you know what that is, as a non-writer who reads a lot. If their answer doesn’t match yours, dig deep and figure out why.

Breathe Life into Your Characters

Photograph of a young woman with natural hair, sitting on the curb one leg extended, one elbow on her bent knee and her chin in her hand

To breathe life into your characters, the writer needs to understand basic personalities, the inner lives of people, the rhythms people use, and what is extraordinary about ordinary people. When a writer is told they’re young and haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand these basics of character building. Basic personalities with rich inner lives and specific rhythms along with that one extraordinary train will breathe life into your characters. 

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