Five Things to Help Bring Your Fiction Characters to Life
Admit it. If you're an aspiring story writer, you've come across the oh-so-dreadful character description/profiling/motivation process. You want your characters to come to life, and you want them to be memorable. You want your readers to bleed when your character bleeds, cry when they feel pain, and get frustrated when they can't open that pickle jar. But in order to do that, you need to realize two things. One: you must make your reader care about your character, and Two: you must make your characters unique. This doesn't always mean that they need to have a scar on their face or missing a limb. It's a little more complicated than that. And yes,I said complicated. But why did I write this, you ask, if this process is so complicated? Well...to make it less complicated. Come on. Use some common sense. I'm here to help you and explain five things that will make your character come alive.
1: Physical Description
Let's start out with your character A. Her name is Anastasia, for example. You have an image of her in your head and she's so amazing that you can't wait to share her with the world. You can't wait to write about her, bring her on so many crazy adventures, tell the story of her life. But wait, before you jump into all the knitty-gritty, you need to introduce her to us. For now, Anastasia is about as interesting as a mall mannequin. Sure, that's a great dress she's wearing, but for right now, she's just a blank face. What you need to do is describe her,but know how to do it.
Now let's bring Anastasia into a scene. Here's what your readers are going to be looking for in a physical description:
1) How does she dress?: For many people, fashion is a statement. And in fact, it is. You need to match your character's attire to their personality, or else you'll risk the scoffing and eye rolling of your readers. If Anastasia is a quiet, education centered Christian girl, then she definitely wouldn't be caught walking around in short-shorts and a tanktop. Again, use your common sense when it comes to attire.
2) Looks?: I find this one a little overrated. Sure, looks are important, but you don't want to be spending three paragraphs explaining how Anastasia's elbows are a little too bony and her eyelashes curve at a 34 degree angle. Just give us the the important things that will make us know her. We need a trademark description that sets her apart from other characters. Oh, Anastasia has extremely long, waistlength hair? Good, now let her be the only one in the story who has that. Just keep in mind to not go overboard. You can't describe every character that comes into the story, and honestly, we don't want to waste the time reading all of that anyways.
3) Habits: This one is probably one you'll need to write down, because it's very important. Remember our mannequin comparison? Now let's assume that ALL your characters are just that. Faceless mannequins. So by using steps one and two, we've fleshed them out a bit. We've got their fashion, now we've got their looks. But what's missing? Now it looks like all our mannequins are walking around, acting the same. Sure they look different, but underneath, they all have the same personality, the same mannerisms, the same brain. It's your job to change that. Give your characters defining habits and personalities. If Anastasia is terrified of water, have her other friend love surfing. It makes for a beautiful conflict scene and the more in depth your characters are, the more we want to read about them. Oh, the surfer girl is dragging Anastasia out to the water despite Anastasia's desperate protests? Get your popcorn poppin' because you'll probably want to see what happens next.
4) Body Language: Body language is our body's natural tongue. Everybody's is different, and it conveys something about us that our spoken language doesn't. Me personally, I tend to cross my arms when I don't feel like talking about a certain subject. When I see someone attractive I often look away and to the left after they've seen me looking. I pee in the toilet with one hand on my hip because, well, it makes it all the more epic. Body language is something you need to put some serious thought into. Angelic, Christian Anastasia would not be caught flirting with random guys (unless she is something underneath this facade...an interesting plot twister!) or farting in public (gross). Think about your characters' minds and personalities and ask yourself, "Would they really be sitting that way? Touching his arm like that? Rolling her eyes?" If you have any doubts whether your character would do or not do something, then it's probably something you should leave out.
Okay, this is where we really get into the meaty part of your character. What we need in your story is a conflict, something that is challenging to your character that calls them to action and makes them overcome a problem. The problem is, you need to create characters with flaws.
Yes, Anastasia may be beautiful and valedictorian and vegetarian and have eyes that glow a beautiful shade of azure in the sunlight. But us readers don't want to read about all that. If you make your character too perfect and have everything work in their favor, then why are we reading this in the first place? We want to see some conflict and some struggle. We want to know that your character is just like us: human. We want to see Anastasia trip up on her way to the altar at her wedding. We want to see her have a social problem that makes her introverted and shy. We want to care for her and we can't do that if you make her walk into every scene with a dozen doves flying out from behind her. Remember, the point is to make us worry for your character. So do that by putting your main character into some kind of danger or problem. Trust me, they'll be able to overcome it. You're the author after all!
3: Dialogue Dialogue Dialogue
I cannot stress this enough. Dialogue is KEY to bringing your characters to life. Remember the mannequin scenario? Everyone looks different, but it's how they talk, how they act, how they use their body language, that sets them apart from each other. Let's take a look at how boring this conversation would be without proper use of creative dialogue:
"Hello Amber, how are you today?" asked Anastasia.
"I'm just fine, Anastasia and yourself?" said Amber.
"I'm doing just great. There is a test today that I'm really worried about."
"A test?" asked Amber. "I hope you do well."
"Thank you," said Anastasia. "Well, bye."
Yawn.Talk about Boringville. Did you see how that dialogue was constructed? It was weak, poorly thought out, and boring. If we switched Amber and Anastasia's names in the dialogue, we wouldn't even be able to tell the difference. They're the same. Mannequins. Now, let's try this dialogue, with Anastasia as the worrisome pessimist and Amber as the opposite.
"Hey Anastasia," said Amber cheerfully.
"Hmm?" said Anastasia, without taking her eyes off the book lying open on the table. "Oh, hey. Sorry, I'm just stressing over this test. My head feels like it's about to explode."
"Test?" said Amber, eyeing the book. "For biology?"
"Yeah. The one I'm going to fail."
Amber laughed. "I'm sure you'll do fine."
"Fine?" asked Anastasia hysterically. "Fine? Did you see how many chapters we have to go through? If I end up doing fine, it'll be a miracle!" She slammed the book shut. "I need some fresh air."
Amber smiled at her. "Here, open it back up. I've got some time before fifth hour. I'll help you."
Okay, take deep breath. Did you see how that flowed a little easier? How it was more believable? How there's actually some personality behind the dialogue? The way characters speak is so important, I cannot put enough emphasis on it. When you write dialogue for your character, you should try saying it out loud. If it doesn't sound like something people would say in real life, then trash it. Dialogue needs to be authentic and it needs to reflect your character's inner personality. If we can't believe they would talk a certain way, then we're not going to believe much of anything else about them.
Don't worry, we're almost done. And the last two are fairly simple. The fourth thing you need to help bring your character to life is, well, a sense of value. As I stated before, you need to give us a reason to like your character. So far you've got her looks, personality, dialogue and mannerisms downpacked. You're going to toss her into a conflict and you're doing it with the wholehearted belief that she'll get through it.
Ah, but why?
Think about that for a second. Why do you believe your character will get through her conflict? Even if your character is meant to have done some awful things in the past, the key is to have them possess that one virtue that makes us respect them, praise them, cheer for them. So your character likes to rob banks and enjoy the thrill of the crime. Yet perhaps they feel a sense of guilt about it. Perhaps one night they wake up promising that this will be their last heist, their last gig. That they want to get out, but are in too deep to do so. That kind of thing will get the reader to care about your character, and ultimately cheer for their sense of value. We want to see the good person inside them, and we want to support the hero. Give us a reason to want to keep reading. Make us like them, and do it by inserting some special principles into their minds.
What motivated me to write this? I knew that there were people like me out there, wishing I could write about more in-depth characters. I hated how my stories fell flat, how my dialogue was choppy and poorly rehearsed. How every scene felt the same. After writing a lot (and I mean a lot), I finally felt like I had enough knowledge in me to help those with the same roadblocks. That was my motivation.
Your character needs to be motivated in the same sense. They need to want something, and they need to want it to the point that they do something about it. The key here is to make your character want something and then stop them from getting it.
Ah, the beauty of fiction. This is where everything ties itself together. Your conflict shall be what stops your character from getting what they want. The conflict shall call them into action, and this shall be their motivation. You need to give them something to fight for, work for, sweat for. We don't want to read about poor Anastasia eating tubs of ice cream and crying over sad movies with a mouthful of Rocky Road. Unless, of course, this is a transition to call her into action. Maybe she throws down the ice cream and, tears running down her face, decides to call her ex-boyfriend to try and work things out again. Maybe self-destructive, but you get the point. Put some motives and goals into your character, and then use the conflict/struggles to stop them from getting to their end goal. Readers love nothing more than to watch your character struggle and suffer. It makes their happy ending all the more memorable.
Now Go Make Yourself Some Characters
So there you have it. Five things to help bring that character of yours to life on the very pages you write on. Of course, there are plenty more methods you can incorporate into your fiction to help spice up their personalities, but these five are the main dishes to serving up some good characters! The key is to balance all of these out, without stressing yourself out about them too much. Don't focus too much on one aspect, but instead spread out these key points and have fun while you're doing it. There will be times when creating a character will be stressful, and even brain-achingly-painful, but trust me, Anastasia will thank you for it in the end, and so will your readers.
Stay tuned for more writing-help hubs, coming soon.
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