They’re Alive! How to Give Life to Your Characters

They’re Alive! How to Give Life to Your Characters


The thing that I love about literary fiction, in its truest sense is that there is such a heavy focus on character development. The characters drive the story; they instruct it on how it should be told, if you will. Commercial fiction, or as many call it– plot-driven fiction, is just that. There is more focus on what is happening than who it is happening to.

Yet, in fact all stories should have well developed, multi-dimensional characters. When I am talking about my work to someone sometimes I am hesitant to use the word, characters to label them, because in a sense, they are people–if I’ve written the story correctly. Characterization takes the basics of what the eye can see and builds on it. In many cases the appearance is secondary and we begin to build immediately on the person. We describe what they do for a living, the choice of words they use or the amount of makeup they wear. Kathryn Stockett does this so well with The Help until you settle comfortably in the fact that it is a white woman giving voice to these Black characters. She gives authenticity without being condescending, truth, without being over the top. Here are a few points to keep in mind when developing characters:

Avoid cookie-cutter characters and stereotypes. Remember, people aren’t made using cookie-cutters; your characters should not be either. Maybe your main guy is tall, dark and… not so handsome. Or maybe she is a not-so-hot looking blonde but she thinks she’s very hot. Contradict your characters.

Add dimensions to what you already “know” about them. Start with character sketches. As you see them began to add dimensions (like putting clothes on paper dolls); layer upon layer, adding complexity and multi-dimensions. Remember characters, like people are more than just a compilation of eye, hair and skin color.

Characterization takes time. Pace your development. You don’t know a person in one fell swoop, so your characters should be developed over time likewise. As the story progresses we should, at an even pace learn more about them until we’re fully engaged and we’re saying things like: Please let Sally get away, she doesn’t deserve to die! Author Victoria Christopher Murray  says, “Characters are like friends; the more time you spend with them, the better you get to know them; the better you can transfer all of their words, gestures and emotions to the page.”  This is so true.

Practice, practice, practice.  The next time you hit the streets pick a person, any person will do. Begin to characterize them (careful here, stalker rules do apply). Then ask yourself, where were they born and how did they get (fill in the blank for wherever you live)? Give them a voice. Using your creative juices this way is a great exercise. Continue until you feel as though you know them intimately.

As you add things your characters will begin to speak to you; some things will feel authentic and you will go with those. Others will feel forced and unrealistic and you will dismiss those. No matter what kind of fiction you write, draw your reader into the story by developing characters that keep them reading.

Learning the Craft of Writing

Learning the Craft of Writing

After three novels and several short stories in several months my debut novel will be published. What a thrill, what a ride. Some may say: It took you three novels? Are you kidding! Yeah, I thought the same more times than you care to know. Yet, in retrospect I know that my first works were just a pouring out from my imagination without true direction. There was no real adherence to or study of the craft of novel writing.Plot & Structure

Then I prayed about it and God directed me to learn the craft. Yes, there are those who have written wonderful books without studying the art. To them I say, God bless. Happy trails. Yet, I believe to be truly good at this art form consistently, it is necessary to know the craft.

I began to read writers’ magazines and stumbled on articles about plotting, sub-plotting, theme, voice and such things. Great.  I hadn’t thought of any of this while I was hammering away at the keyboard. I knew that such fundamentals existed, but I reasoned I had read enough books to figure it out and everything necessary would somehow naturally emerge (It turned out this kind of reasoning was like believing I could make a good movie because I’d watched so many great ones. Wait for my remake of Glory.) I picked up a copy of James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and poured over it, highlighted areas and dog eared pages.  I became an avid reader of the Writer’s Digest magazine. I read certain articles repeatedly, searched out the meaning of voice, theme and plot; I compared writing in first versus third person and so on.

As I honed my techniques, I began to understand the parts of a novel and the way it unfolds. I wrote again. Another novel was born. But this time, because I didn’t know how to move a story along, this thing had a myriad of plots and they were going in so many directions the entire book got away from me. My reader probably would’ve given up halfway through the book–eyes crossed. Sigh. Patience is not my strongest virtue. But I patiently continued to work at it.

And finally, 2006 In Three Days was born as I sat in an office, out of work, seeking help. This time I started with the characters. I developed them until I knew them intimately. Not just their physical appearance, but their likes and dislikes, their personalities; what makes them do what they do, their walk, accents and inclinations. And then I worked it most every day, just a few pages consistently because I was working fulltime and had three kids to care for.  And now it is here. It is time. And I plan to enjoy the journey and the path on which God has set me.