Breathing life into your characters
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
With any healthy long term relationship, you need to really get to know the person. When we write characters we are in a sense, entering a long term relationship with them, by investing in them enough to write their story. Whether it’s a major character, minor, villain or hero if they play any significant role, you’ll need to spend time learning what makes them tick and more importantly: WHY.
“To know your characters completely, you've got to know the emotional truths in their psyche, the relationships and history that influences them, and the way they choose to act in the world in order to be perceived a certain way.”
The deeper we know them the more consistent subtleties we’ll naturally infuse our story with. If your character isn’t well fleshed out they’re going to feel very flat and transparent to the reader.
“ What we end up falling in love with is their mindsets, their emotions. We fall in love with their motivations, their flaws, their vulnerabilities, their strengths. We fall in love with emphasizing with them. We fall in love with them challenging our ways of thinking. We fall in love NOT with what makes them physically realistic, but with what's at the core of them internally, what makes them real overall. We fall in love with NOT what makes them realistic, but what makes them real. ” - rachelgiesel.com -
I’ve written novels from third person intimate, I also first person present, and the rules are the same: get to know your characters, all of the key ones.
If you’re a first person author, it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, it actually means the opposite. When writing first person, you have to know your secondary characters so well, that you can get the reader to know those characters without the reader EVER being in the character’s heads.
There are two main components when getting to know your characters: Platforms (scenarios) and Questions
~Throw them in the “lions den” (an outrageous situation) and see what happens. Do they get eaten? Make friends with the lions? Become a lion themselves?
~And for good measure, throw a friend/foe in with them and see how the scenario changes.
Some of my best dialogue has come from attempting to get to know a character better, throwing them in an outrageous situation with the worst person possible and then dialogue it out while I do the dishes.
~Find a scene, or line of dialogue that epitomizes that character and review it every time you’re going to be writing a scene for them so that you get in their head.
~Find a moment that epitomizes that character and then dissect why that scene that says “this is that character’s soul”.
~Start a diary from your characters perspective and write entries in in it.
~Talks show host. Pretend that you’re interviewing them on your own talk show (think the bachelor or the tonight show) and you’re getting the inside scoop, the behind the scenes access. i.e.
*When (X) event happened, you reacted by doing/saying(z). Why did you do that? What was going through your head?
*When (Jane) said (X) you responded by doing/saying (z), what were you actually thinking in that moment? Follow up: So why did/didn’t you tell (Jane) that?
-If there is one most important question you could ask your characters it’s: WHY
-After asking them why, it crucial to: LISTEN to their answer. Monologue it, talk it out, write it out, whatever you have to do, but LISTEN to them!
Below are lists of things to ask that I found on several different sights and thought they were fantastic and worth a share. I've included the link for you to check it out on their website. They had lots of other great stuff on there.
At the bottom of the lists is my final tip for how to use all this awesome info, so scroll on down and take a look!
Questions to ask about your character:
-IF YOU HAD TO SUM UP WHAT YOUR CHARACTER'S VALUES INTO 3 THINGS, WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
-WHAT DO THEY WANT + WHY DO THEY WANT IT?WHAT DO THEY SUBCONSCIOUSLY WANT? -WHAT DON'T THEY REALIZE IS IMPORTANT TO THEM?
-WHAT DO THEY NEED? Consider, what negative roles they are needing fulfilled by the other characters. What emotionally (for better or worse) attracts them to that specific person and how does it continue both good and bad patterns in their life.
i.e. Josh needs Jessica to hurt him because he always gets hurt by the people he cares about.
-WHAT SCARES THEM?
-WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER BELIEVE? HOW DO THEY PERCEIVE THE WORLD? HOW ARE THEY WRONG?
Your character will believe this to be completely and unconditionally true, but it might not be.
They say that a person generates their core beliefs about the world by the age of seven. These are conclusions we've reached at a young age based on the world around us. They may be right. They may be wrong. But they do exist.
-BLAST TO THE PAST: WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN YOUR CHARACTER'S PAST THAT INFLUENCES HOW THEY BEHAVE NOW?
-CONSIDER RELATIONSHIPS. WHO DO THEY TRUST? WHO DO THEY HATE? WHY?
-HOW DO THEY BEHAVE?
Behavior is an interesting thing. It may be aligned with your character's beliefs, or it may appear to be completely misaligned with your character's beliefs.
-HOW DO THEY TALK?
Get to Know Your Characters - The Editor's Blog http://theeditorsblog.net
~ How did that want develop? Where did it come from? How deeply is it embedded? Can it be satisfied by more than one object or person? Does he, the character, want it more at certain times of the day or year? When he’s drunk or falling off to sleep or starting his day? When he sees a woman who reminds him of the one who betrayed him or the man who stole his company?
~ Does he have competing desires? Does he ally himself with others who have like desires? Does he care whether or not his desires are met? Will he help others with their desires?
~ Are his wants easily satisfied or never satisfied? What satisfies those wants? Does he accept substitutions or the satisfaction of a lesser want when what he really wants is out of his reach? Isn’t socially acceptable? Embarrasses him?
~ What triggers your character’s want? Do different triggers produce different levels of response? How does he hold that want in check so it doesn’t rule his life? Does he require medication? Hypnosis? Therapy? Adherence to religious rituals? Can he even restrain himself from acting out, from pursuing what he wants?
~ What do his wants lead to? Do they force him into unethical or illegal behavior? Maybe he pushes himself until he has a heart attack. Maybe he drinks, not caring that he gets behind the wheel drunk or treats others callously. Maybe he gets into fights or sleeps with other men’s wives.
~What kind of man is he when he regrets his bad behavior? What kind of man is he when he forgets what makes him act irrationally and he behaves as he would have had something not interfered and made him a different sort of man?
~ Which other characters know how to trigger negative (or positive) reactions in your main characters? What are their goals? Why do they use what they know about other characters for their own ends? What are those ends?
~ What are your character’s coping mechanisms? Work? Sex? Breaking the law? Driving dangerously? Playing the stock market? Internet hacking? Flirting with inappropriate people? Outwitting colleagues? Getting involved with politics?
Questions to ask your character:
Consider the answers your character might have for a variety of situations, because the answer WILL change depending on who your character is talking to:
-Someone trying to pick them up at a bar
-Writing an online dating profile
-A distant relative they haven't talked to in years
-A new friend
-A new coworker
-Someone scary, creepy, repulsive
-Someone they're trying to impress
(slap them into these scenarios with various other characters and see how their answer differs. Then go back and figure out WHY they answered differently with each of those people.)
LET THEM VENT IN A STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS
When all else fails, just let your character talk and be willing to listen.
Ask your character to tell you a story.
Ask them to talk about something as boring as water.
Ask them to be happy.
Ask them to complain.
Ask them to tell you something.
Let them go. Do not censor. Do not judge. You can always revise this nonsense later (or refuse to include it in your final product at all). The goal of this exercise is to get your character talking so you can understand who they are, what they think, and what they're doing in this world.
If you have two characters that you need to learn about, have them answer questions to each other. This can be a fantastic resource if they're in a romantic relationship, and if they're not.
How would your character's answers change if she spoke her answers to her husband, versus her sister, versus her boss?
1- Go through right now and note or mark the tips that stand out the most to you as something you’d like to try.
2- Pick 2 characters: 1st the one that you're stuck on, 2nd one that you haven’t given much thought. Then try out five of these tips on each character.
I hope you found this post helpful. Feel free to leave any thoughts, comments or additional tips below.