Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lesson 7: Bring Your Characters To Life Without A Magic Wand

One of the most sobering realizations I had as an early writer was this: there are no new stories. Literary experts disagree on the exact number of plots which have been rewritten time and time again, but there's a 99.9% chance your storyline has been told before.

Does that mean you should quit writing?

No, it does not.

But if you are going to make your novel rise above scores of other similar novels, you are going to have to make your book as unique as your own fingerprint. How do you do this?

By creating realistic, compelling characters.

While you may delight in reading a book where the prose is flowery and poetic, or you may devour a book where non-stop action keeps you turning the pages, when you think about the books that you truly love--the ones that linger with you for days or months or even years--chances are you felt a deep connection with the characters. They left an imprint in your heart, just like a living, breathing person.

 The author's role is not to be a like puppeteer, 
controlling the character's actions, but  ...

to be like the Blue Fairy, giving the character life.

How do you create lifelike characters?

Well, there isn't a simple technique or a simple trick. Like everything else in writing, it's a process. Word by word, chapter by chapter, you build your character's personality and strengths, as well as weaknesses. But before your characters can come alive on the pages of your book, you need to be well acquainted with your characters before you ever type a single word.

I keep a cheat sheet for each of my characters. I do this during the plotting phase, but I do change or add to the cheat sheet as the story develops. On my cheat sheet, I list the following for each character:

Main goal:
Motivated by:
Inner need:
Flaw blocking need:
Core trait:
Other good and bad traits:
Imperfections and quirks:
Dialogue style:
Relationships with others:

I like how this list is prioritized: the focus is on the character's personality and not on their appearance. Unless the character's appearance is pivotal to the plot, (for example, if the hero can't get a date with the girl of his dreams because he has was born with two noses instead of one) a wise author would downplay external appearances and would focus on internal attributes instead. Why?

Think of the people in your life who are close to your heart: do you love them because of their appearance? Most likely, that answer is no. Yes, at first you may have been attracted to them because of their smile, their hair, their six pack abs, (I've never seen any in real life. I think they're a myth.) but the reasons for truly loving a person are much deeper that what's on the surface.

Great characters should have some of the following traits:

Selflessness: your character should have interests other than their own pursuits and goals. Think of all the amazing conflicts that arise when a character has to choose between something they have always desired versus the love and acceptance of their family and friends. Selflessness is something your character might have to learn or strive to develop, but so long as your character doesn't start out as a narcissist, your readers will be glad to watch your character grow.

Compassion: in order for your hero or heroine to be well liked, they need to show that they have a heart. Even (or especially) in their relationship with the antagonist, your hero should feel deep empathy to towards those who betray or otherwise cause harm. That empathy might stem from a need for acceptance, a remembrance of the person the antagonist was before they turned to the dark side, or even a weakness the antagonist has which the hero can see in himself.

External calm (even while they might be in the midst of a raging inner storm): this is simple. No one likes to be around a hot-head. Yes, we all blow our tops from time to time, and if your character does so, it should be uncharacteristic and rare, and followed by feelings of guilt from the character. If your character snaps and yells at his friends, his family, or his high school math teacher, it should be a pivotal plot-point, where your reader will see that the character is falling apart at the seams.

Diligence: your character should be able to persevere though the toughest of challenges. They may have a moment where they simply can't take another step towards their fate, but they will eventually pull through. Before they reach that critical point, make certain you show that your character has was it takes to be a champion, even if they don't see it in themselves.

Vulnerability:  Unfortunately, we live in a world where people like to tear down those who are deemed too successful or too "perfect." If your characters come across as being exceptional in every way, your reader will not relate to them and will ultimately dislike them. Give your characters weaknesses: fears, insecurities, health problems, skeletons from their past. As a character works to overcome his or her weaknesses, your reader will feel a kinship with that character, since readers are working on overcoming their own weaknesses as well.

In reviewing my first novel, The Seasons of Mae, I am relieved to know I did something right: I gave my characters depth. However, the way in which I manifested each character's traits could have been improved.

Since your eyeballs are probably bleeding by now, and since characters are such an important topic that they warrant more than one post, I'll save my examples for how to give your characters more dimension next week. See ya then!


  1. I can't wait to read your examples! Thanks for sharing your checklist formula. That was very interesting, and helpful. Great post!

  2. Thanks Jenna! Glad you enjoyed it!


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