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. 

Character Reveal: Wanda

It’s another character reveal! Characters from my books (in print or works-in-progress) answer questions from a standard personality assessment test. (See previous ones: Miranda, Irene, Beryl, Leslie). Today’s character reveal: Wanda Terry. Wanda is Miranda’s second mate, chief engineer, and ship’s cook in If I Should Die, book two of the My Soul to Keep series.

image for character reveal: Wanda is an image of woman holding a sign with a question mark in front of her face
Character hiding her face behind a sign with a large question mark–character reveal from If I Should Die

Who

Wanda Terry is twenty-two in If I Should Die. When she was eighteen, she wriggled under her bed to get her shoe. That was when the Angel of Death Took her father and cousins. She ran and hid on the streets of town for months. After she was raped a second time, she collapsed in an alley and waited to die.

But a kind black man who was a member of the rebels found her. She never learned his role in the rebel group, Soldiers for the American Bill of Rights (SABR). He and his wife hid and fed her until she was strong enough to make the trek to the Missouri River.

On that first trip to the ocean, she proved her worth to Miranda by fixing the Lady Angelfish’s engine when a fuel valve malfunctioned.

1. Who is your role model? 

Character reveal: Wanda a close up image of a pensive black man who could be Wanda's father

I had no one but my daddy. He worked hard and drank hard and loved hard. He loved my mama so much it nearly killed him when she died. But he said he looked at me, just four year old and crying for her mama, and he pulled himself together and said he’d deal with his grief later. I don’t think he ever dealt with it. He spent every day after, looking after me or working so he could look after me. When he was at work, I stayed with his mama—Mama C (Clementine). She was a good woman—she loved me and cared for me, but no one did it like my daddy.

2. Who knows you the best?

Nobody. Better that way.

3. What would your friends say about you?

All my friends and family are all dead. I’m so sorry. Do you need a minute? No. People die. You get used to it.

4. What is the question people ask you most often?

If they’re white they ask, Whatcha doin’ there, girl? If they’re black, they ask. Where you goin’, Aunt Sally?

Why do they call you Aunt Sally?

Because they think I kiss up to the likes of you.

5. What is the thing you’d never say to another person?

I’d never call a person Aunt Sally. You can’t know that person’s story. Some people are just friendly. Some people are struggling to survive. And some people are just bad through and through. But you can’t tell the difference by their looks. 

6. What is your greatest achievement?

Surviving.

7. What is your greatest failure?

Surviving. 

8. What did you learn from your greatest failure?

I learned that most of life is totally out of anyone’s control. The government will lie. Friends and family will die. And coarse men are coarse not because of their skin color or how much money they do or do not have. They are coarse because they’re men who rape.

I learned that you can’t think about the day’s losses or the wins because neither one will help you get through the next day. And that bloody and dead bodies don’t scare me. My nightmares are about the tight, dark space under my bed. I was fetching my other shoe out from under the bed when They came.

9. What is the thing you are most proud of?

Being part of this Freedom Waterway. Miranda and Beryl are good people doing good. They help anyone who needs help. They don’t care what color you are, how much money you have, or what you are running from—they—we—willl help you get somewhere safe.

10. What would you like to change about yourself?

Why would I want to change? 

Isn’t there some part of you that you don’t like and would change if you could?

I got parts I don’t like, but I wouldn’t change them. The Good Lord made me this way. It’s my duty to figure out how to use what He gave me to be and do good in this world. 

11. If something in your house breaks, what is the first thing you do?

I can fix almost anything thanks to my daddy. The two things he was good at was patching things together and cooking. 

12. What is the greatest obstacle you’re facing right now?

As if there’s only one obstacle in my life.

I guess, if I have to say there’s one greatest obstacle it would be hate. People who hate me because of my skin color or my wild, kinky hair. People who hate because I don’t believe in the cruel, hate-filled Jesus that they believe in. And people who hate me because I want to make a difference in the world and people who—Yup. All that hate is a great big obstacle.

13. How do you like to “waste” your time?

When it takes everything you got to survive, you don’t have time to waste. But here on the Lady Angelfish—I have time to think.

What do you think about? 

Miranda talks about someday when the world ain’t so messed up and I guess I caught a little of that from her. I think about going back home or finding some little town like home and starting a cafe or something. Silly stuff like that. 

14. What is the ritual that helps you calm down?

Tinkering with an engine.

I would have thought it would be something related to cooking.

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But most the time when I’m cooking I have a big old knife in my hands—chop-chop-chopping something up.  

15. What is your favorite place in town?

It used to be home. I don’t know anymore.

16. What do you prefer–a book, a movie or a theater play?

I’ve never been to a theater play. Sometimes Daddy and me would sit on the hill behind the Drive-In and watch a movie. I liked that some. But book reading—well, I guess I never read a book with anyone like me in it. So I never saw the point.

17. What was the happiest period of your life?

for Character Reveal: Wanda an image into a pot full of green beans and salt port.
You can find a recipe for green beans and salt pork on bon appétit

The year I turned ten. Daddy’s garage had started making some money. He’d come home well after dark, tired, but happy. I’d have the vegetables chopped and ready. And we’d fix dinner together every night. We ate pretty good most days, but he knew I loved greens and salt pork. That was our meal every Saturday that year. 

18. What is your most treasured memory from childhood?

Standing at the stove with my daddy while he cooked that big old pot of green beans and salt pork. 

19. What was your favorite game when you were a child?

Knucklebones. Daddy said that’s what it was called in the olden days. The white folk had little silver stars and a little red ball and they called it Jacks. My cousins and I never minded. We had a fine time with our sticks and stones.

20. What is the greatest injustice you’ve lived through?

Being used and invisible and feared—all at the same time. 

An Invitation

I hope you enjoyed character reveal: Wanda. You won’t “see” Wanda until If I Should Die is published. But my invitation to send me sketches or drawings of any of my characters (including Wanda), stands. I’d love to see them. 

Character Reveal: Leslie


In a character reveal, characters from my books (in print or works-in-progress) answer questions from a standard personality assessment test. Today’s character reveal: Leslie.

You first met Leslie, Ian’s sister, in Fellowship. She also appears in the second in the My Soul to Keep series, If I Should Die. Watch this website for sneak peaks and cover reveals in the third quarter of 2020.

Character hiding her face behind a sign with a large question mark--character reveal: Leslie

Who

Leslie Ann Elizabeth Hobart was sixteen when she appeared in the Fellowship. Younger sister to Ian, Leslie worked as an aide at a local physician’s office for her school sponsored work program. She appears in If I Should Die with vital information that challenges Miranda and a doll that brings back unpleasant memories for Beryl. 

1. Who is your role model?

When I was in school, my role model was Clara Barton. Clara was a self-taught nurse who risked her life to care for soldiers in the battlefield during the Civil War. And she founded the American Red Cross. Now, it would have to be the woman who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Revolutionary war, I forget her name—Deborah something—Sampson? Yes, I think her name was Deborah Sampson.

2. Who knows you the best?

My brothers, especially Ian. We learned a lot about ourselves and each other when we had to hide from the Second Sphere agents. To survive, we had to work together, depend on each other.

3. What would your friends say about you?

In high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends. But the friends I had would have said I was sweet, helpful, and smart. What about now? When you’re a spy, you don’t have many friends. 

4. What is the question people ask you most often? 

Where are your parents? But I don’t tell them the truth. Most of the time, if I told them the truth I’d put myself or Ian in danger. 

5. What is the thing you’d never say to another person?

I’d never, ever, say “your parents have been Taken.” —I’m sorry, I need a moment.

I apologize. I didn’t mean to upset you. Take all the time you need.

6. What is your greatest achievement?

I don’t know that I have a greatest achievement.

Sure you do. It doesn’t have to be world shaking. It could be as simple as getting good grades in school.

Oh, well, then I guess I’d have to say helping my brothers survive both in the mountains and when the Second Sphere caught me and my younger brothers, 

7. What is your greatest failure? 

Getting injured and getting us caught. 

8. What did you learn from your greatest failure?

What did I learn? Maybe that I should watch where I’m going? And—it’s a cliché, but I learned that you can’t prepare for things too much. Anything can happen. And when the worst thing happens, your survival depends upon how prepared you are.

9. What is the thing you are most proud of?

My little brothers. They wouldn’t leave me to save themselves. 

10. What would you like to change about yourself?

I wish I had finished high school. I wish I’d paid more attention in history and politics. And I wish I’d practiced with the rifle more..

11. If something in your house breaks, what is the first thing you do?

Gert taught me to find the right tool and materials for the job. If I can’t find the right stuff, I will figure out how to make what I have work. 

12. What is the greatest obstacle you’re facing right now?

If she loves a rag doll, is she still evil. The answer is yes, read why

No one believes me. I know what I heard and I have this doll. But still no one believes what I know is the truth.

13. How do you like to “waste” your time?

I don’t have a lot of time to waste these days, but I used to love to read gothic romances. It’s not something I would enjoy today. I’ve seen too much—real life—to believe in that kind of romance anymore.

14. What is the ritual that helps you calm down?

Watching the river or creek. Listening to the burbles and gurgles as the water passes over rocks. 

15. What is your favorite place in town?

You mean my hometown?

Wherever. 

Hmm. That seems like such a long time ago. I don’t know…I don’t have good feeling about Ambrose anymore, but I loved going to the Silver Spoons ice cream parlor in Lynchburg.

16. What do you prefer–a book, a movie or a theater play?

A book.

17. What was the happiest period of your life?

Right before Ma and Pop were Taken. The boys were getting along. Pop was happy because his hardware store business had picked up. Davey had asked me to go the Friday night social. I loved working at Dr. Bakers. He taught me so much about caring for people.

18. What is your most treasured memory from childhood?

Christmas morning, when I was seven. I rushed downstairs and saw that Santa had brought me a nurse set and a book about Clara Barton and a beautiful gold locket. That was the most Christmas Santa had ever brought me. I was thrilled.

19. What was your favorite game when you were a child?

I liked puzzles more than games. Any kind of puzzle—crossword, jigsaw, a story puzzle. I enjoy figuring things out.

20. What is the greatest injustice you’ve lived through?

My parents were Taken. They were good, kind, loving people. They didn’t deserve to be Taken.

An Invitation

If you missed them, read the three previous character reveals: Irene, Miranda, and Beryl.

Are you an artist or doodler? Have you drawn an image of Leslie or any other character in one of my books? Please, send me a digital copy. With your permission, I’ll post it on the character’s page on this website and share it on social media. 

Did you enjoy Character Reveal: Leslie? Based on Leslie’s answers above, what additional question would you ask? Is there a character from either Fellowship or My Soul to Keep you’d like to see answer these questions in the next character reveal?

Character Reveal: Beryl Clarke

The character reveal is a feature on my website. Characters from my books (in print or works-in-progress) answer questions from a standard personality assessment test. Today’s character reveal: Beryl Lucille Clarke Mitchell. Beryl is Miranda’s aunt and mentor, and a protagonist of the Fellowship Dystopia series.

Image of a woman holding a sign with a question mark on it in front of her face--Character reveal Beryl Clarke

Who

Beryl had just turned fifty-two when she appeared in the first book of the series, My Soul to Keep. Younger sister to the Fellowship’s premier preacher-politician, Counselor Donald Clarke, Beryl learned to hate him when he betrayed her. She and Miranda escape Redemption in My Soul to Keep. Now, fifty-four at the beginning of If I Should Die, she is the First Mate aboard the Lady Angelfish. She’s sworn to protect her niece, Miranda. And she will, even if she never learns to love the water like Miranda.

1. Who is your role model? 

In character Reveal: Beryl we learn 62 year old Annie Oakley with her rifle was a role model for Beryl

As a kid, I read everything I could find about Annie Oakley. I was thirteen years old when my father took my older brother, Donald, and I to a shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina. I saw Annie Oakley shoot 100 clay targets in a row at sixteen yards. Man, I wanted to shoot like her, to be like her. She was one sharp-eyed sixty-two-year-old. But Pop started going to the Fellowship rallies. By the next spring, he’d become a member. Mrs. Oakley was anti-Fellowship, so Pop forbade me from reading anymore about her. I didn’t even know when she died just four years later. 

2. Who knows you the best? 

Long ago, I would have answered, my husband. Now, there’s no one. 

3. What would your friends say about you? 

Friends? I don’t have friends. What about Miranda? She’s my niece. My student. My responsibility. 

4. What is the question people ask you most often?

Did you have to shoot him?

5. What is the thing you’d never say to another person?

I never betray a secret. Other than that, I say what’s on my mind.

6. What is your greatest achievement?

That I survived ten years of isolation and torture in the hell-hole they call Redemption and never revealed my secrets.

7. What is your greatest failure?

My daughter, Anna.

8. What did you learn from your greatest failure?

What did I learn? Never to trust anyone who says “trust me.”

9. What is the thing you are most proud of?

You mean some thing I’ve done?I don’t know. Proud is something you feel when you’re a kid and you make straight A’s. 

10. What would you like to change about yourself?

I’d like to forget some things I had to do.   

11. If something in your house breaks, what is the first thing you do?

My house? I haven’t had a house—a home—in almost fifteen years. Being on the run you don’t stop to fix things, you just keep moving. What about the boat? It’s not a house.

12. What is the greatest obstacle you’re facing right now?

Rag doll belonging to Azrael

Disbelief. No one can believe the Azrael have somehow survived the destruction of the island. I’m not sure I believe it. But I’m going to find out if they have.

13. How do you like to “waste” your time?

Sitting in the sun, not thinking. 

14. What is the ritual that helps you calm down?

Cleaning my guns.

15. What is your favorite place in town?

I don’t go to town unless I must for a mission. Someone would recognize me. They won’t arrest me if they catch me again. They’ll shoot-to-kill on sight.

16. What do you prefer–a book, a movie or a theater play?

It has been a long time since I’ve done any of those. I used to enjoy going to the theater—but that was another lifetime. I can’t imagine doing any of those soon.

17. What was the happiest period of your life?

When we brought my daughter home from the hospital. We were in love with her and each other. But we were willfully ignorant of the terrible things the Fellowship did.

18. What is your most treasured memory from childhood?

Watching Annie Oakley. 

19. What was your favorite game when you were a child?

Anything with shooting—preferably with my BB gun, but most often it was my finger or a toy gun (as long as Mother didn’t catch me.)

20. What is the greatest injustice you’ve lived through?

Being accused of murdering my daughter. But Weldon murdered her first—he manipulated and warped her mind and sent her to kill her own parents. And she almost did.

An Invitation

If you missed them, read the two previous character reveals: Irene and Miranda.

Are you an artist or doodler? Have you drawn an image of Beryl or any other character in one of my books? Please, send me a digital copy. With your permission, I’ll post it on the character’s page on this website and share it on social media. 

Did you enjoy Character Reveal: Beryl Clarke? Based on Beryl’s answers above, what additional question would you ask? Is there a character from My Soul to Keep or Fellowship you’d like to see answer these questions in the next character reveal?

Character Reveal: Miranda Clarke

The character reveal is a feature on my website. Characters from my books (in print or works-in-progress) answer questions from a standard personality assessment test. Today’s character reveal: Miranda Clarke, the protagonist of the My Soul to Keep series.

Who

Photo of a woman holding a question mark sign in front of her face. Character Reveal: Miranda Clarke.

Miranda Rose Clarke was about to turn twenty-five when she appeared in the first book, My Soul to Keep. Daughter of the Fellowship’s premier preacher-politician, Counselor Donald Clarke and his wife, Kara Louise Lancaster Clarke. She made a break from her parents and the Fellowship in My Soul to Keep. Now, twenty-seven at the beginning of If I Should Die, she is the captain of the Lady Angelfish and the Freedom Waterway. 

1. Who is your role model?

image of Harriet Tubman, whom we learn in character reveal: Miranda Clarke's is Miranda's role model
By Powelson, Benjamin F. 1823 – 1885 – Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress, Public Domain

When I was in grade school I found and read a banned book about Harriet Tubman. Brave, resourceful—she escaped slavery then went back and saved other slaves. And when the Civil War broke out, she was a nurse, spy, and scout. And she rescued more slaves. I can only hope to be as successful and brave as she was.

2. Who knows you the best?

My crew—Aunt Beryl and Wanda. You can’t live 24/7 on a smallish yacht and not know each other. 

3. What would your friends say about you?

Oh, my. I hope they say good things, that I’m a good friend, kind, and have done good for the refugees. 

4. What is the question people ask you most often?

There are two questions people ask me all the time. Where are we going? And why are you doing this? Refugees have spent so much time hiding and being afraid, they have a hard time accepting that I just want to help them and that I’m taking them to a safe place. 

5. What is the thing you’d never say to another person?

I—I wish I could say I would never say anything hurtful.  I try not to, but I know I have.

6. What is your greatest achievement?

The Freedom Waterway. When I started rescuing refugees, I had no idea that it would become a network of boats and marinas and everyday folk that reach all across America’s waterways. 

7. What is your greatest failure?

Hmm. My first thought is that I failed at my escape plan… But that wasn’t my greatest failure. I—I thought I could be a soldier. I wanted to fight, to be like Beryl. But, I’m not as strong as she is.

8. What did you learn from your greatest failure?

That I had to find my own path in this conflict, heck, in life. 

9. What is the thing you are most proud of?

The Freedom Waterway. It wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t started trying to help people.

10. What would you like to change about yourself?

Oh boy, you ask some hard questions. I wish I could face the truth head-on like Beryl does. I have to sidle up to it, look away, get used to it, before I can really deal with it.

11. If something in your house breaks, what is the first thing you do?

image of neglected bow of a yacht on dry land.

Remember, Lady Angelfish, my yacht, is my home. She’d been abandoned. I rebuilt her. Every inch of her. And if you’re at sea and wanted by the Fellowship, there’s no one to call. I fix whatever’s broken. Though I have to say that Wanda’s a genius with the engines. If it’s an engine problem, I let Wanda handle it now. 

12. What is the greatest obstacle you’re facing right now?

I owe Beryl my life many times over. I will help her on her quest. But I’m afraid that means I need to be a soldier for a while. I don’t know if I can do that.

13. How do you like to “waste” your time?

Reading and listening to beautiful instrumental music.

14. What is the ritual that helps you calm down?

Breathing. Sometimes listening to soothing music.

15. What is your favorite place in town?

Um, you understand that I can’t visit places “in town,” don’t you?

Then what’s your favorite place? On a calm, clear day—I love sitting on the Fly Bridge at sunrise or sunset. There’s a moment of release—not holding your breath release, but the release of tension and fear and the in the beautiful colors of the sky reflected on the water there’s a breath of a promise. 

image of the sunset on the ocean

16. What do you prefer–a book, a movie or a theater play?

I used to enjoy the theater, but I’ve always preferred a good book. 

17. What was the happiest period of your life?

Happiest? I guess that’s a relative term. Happiest compared to what? I think I must have had some happy times as a child. We’ve had some pleasant times on the boat, times when we’ve laughed our heads off. And I’m happy every time I see Nick. But I don’t think happiest applies to any of those times. Ask me again when this conflict is over.

18. What is your most treasured memory from childhood?

My childhood was a lie. I don’t treasure it.

19. What was your favorite game when you were a child?

I didn’t like playing games. My family’s—my parent’s—rules were too—ruthless.

20. What is the greatest injustice you’ve lived through?

Everything the Fellowship does is an injustice. But I’d have to say the greatest injustices are the deaths of my friends. They shouldn’t have to give up their lives because evil, immoral men rule the country.

Your Turn

If you missed it, you might want to read Irene’s character reveal

If you are an artist or doodler and have drawn an image of Miranda or any other character in one of my books, send me a digital copy. With your permission, I’ll post it on the character’s page on this website and share it on social media. 

Did you enjoy Character Reveal: Miranda Clarke? Based on Miranda’s answers above, what additional question would you ask? Is there a character from My Soul to Keep you’d like to see answer these questions in the next character reveal?