Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tip 4/25 ~ Breathing Life Into Characters

Continuing along with last week's tip dealing with character, I decided to go in that same category this week.  How do you keep from having cardboard, one-dimensional, boring characters?  What brings a character to life and causes readers to fall in love with them beyond what the characters think and feel?

As a writer, it is our job to fully flesh out our characters, to make them real people.  This isn't an easy task.  I've spent some time reading reviews of books on goodreads and I'm not surprised that one- and two-star reviews often say something negative about character creation and how "fake" the characters seem.

Honestly, in the course of my writing journey I have met many different types of writers.  One of my friends doesn't plan anything at all - he just sits at the computer and waits for the words to come to him.  Another friend plots out everything meticulously on note cards and knows from start to finish exactly what will happen every second of her book.  In fact, she worlds builds and includes much more stuff than she will ever use.

Me? I'm mostly fly by the seat of my pants and let my characters tell me what they want to do.  They usually speak to me at night before I fall asleep, and if the idea is a good one it sticks and I write it the next day.  This is how I work with one exception.  I know my characters inside and out, backward and forward before I ever type a word.

And what things do I need to know about my characters?  It's a simple list really.

I ask them what they value most.  Basically, what things would they give up anything for.  What kind of things do they look for in other people.  Honesty, family, love, money, power, their children.  Whatever they would sacrifice almost anything to have.  Then, I have to know what they wouldn't sacrifice.  What is so important to them that they wouldn't even give it up for their most valued things?  This will be their one value that can't change throughout the book, which can sometimes make things tricky in writing, but will help you stay true to your character without any convenient changes of heart.

I then move on to asking them their beliefs.  This is anything they believe beyond a shadow of a doubt.  These beliefs do not have to make sense, they don't even have to be true.  As long as the character believes it to be true, I write it down.  Lilly's beliefs were:  I can only trust myself.  No one will love me if they know my secrets.  I will be a horrible mother.  Zach's beliefs were:  I will never find my soul mate.  My family is most important. There is nothing worse than a liar.

Next comes secrets.  This is where the magic happens for me.  Whatever my characters are hiding from the rest of the world, whatever happened to them to make them bury the secret and never share with others, that is where all of my best ideas for my novel come from.  I can't share my characters' secrets with you, as I hope one day you will consider reading Always and Forever, but let's just say this category is for the really important stuff.  Did your character kill someone?  Did they cheat on an old girlfriend?  Have they been cheated on?  Do they long for a family even though they say they don't want one? Whatever their deep dark secret is, hold it close to you and spend your book exploiting that knowledge!

Now, your character needs a skill. This can be anything, but it has to be something that helps your reader connect with the character.  Lilly loves to cook.  Zach loves to dance.

From all of this information, you will be able to figure out your character's strength and flaw, and after all, every character needs a fatal flaw to overcome.  Lilly's strength is self-reliance.  Her flaw is that she can't trust others.  Zach's strength is bravery.  His flaw is arrogance.

Lastly, I want to know what they look like - body build, age, hair color, eye color.  This includes any special characteristics.  Lilly has an injured leg, walks with a limp, and uses a cane, which is a very important part of the story.  Zach has a habit of running his hand through his hair and messing it up.  I never really thought about the special characteristic.  Lilly's was a plot element, Zach's just kind of happened.  However, I've heard the advice from many places that a special characteristic will help readers feel like they are reading about real people.  That might even be true :-)  I haven't planned anything for my new characters yet in this regard, but something might pop up as I'm writing.

There are, of course, as many different ways to go about building a character as there are characters and writers.  The method I use is a mixture of methods suggested in two different classes I attended and blogs I've read.  I've merged them into a format that works for me.

Here is a quick recap of what I learn about my characters before writing:
1.  Values.
- Include what they absolutely will not give up; i.e., they would die for this thing.
2.  Beliefs.
3.  Secrets.
4.  Skill.
5.  Strength and fatal flaw.
6.  Physical description.
- Include any special characteristic.

I know my way will not work for everyone.  For more methods, check out the following blogs:
Anthologies Online
Holly Lisle How to Create a Character
Create a Fictional Character From Scratch

Good luck, and happy writing!!


  1. Nice summary. I wish I could be as organized. For some reason, I just know my characters and what they would or wouldn't do but I never have sat down and listed things about them. You ask me a question about a character and I can answer it without thinking. Ha, I do that all the time when responding to crits. Oh, that's because blah, blah, blah. And the funny thing is I never thought of it before. Of course this only holds true for my main characters. I suppose my flaw is I don't develop secondary characters that well. For example, Mrs. Walker in my current MS is kind of a stereotype and so are the lawyers and the detective.

    1. Interesting how we are all different, isn't it? Until I came up with this method, I seemed to lose the thread and get bored while writing. I didn't know what to have my characters do next, because I didn't know them well enough. I suppose you have to go with whatever works for you! Thanks for stopping by!


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