Monday, August 22, 2011

Making Characters Breathe

by Vivian Zabel  

         Have you ever become interested in a story or novel to the extent you can "see" one or more of the characters but the others seem flat, or one dimensional? Perhaps you've read something and thought, "A real person wouldn't act like that or do that"?

         Characters who aren't "real," who don't breathe, don't live for the reader can destroy an otherwise good plot.

         Believable, living characters make a story, novel, article live and breathe, too. Several tips can help the writer create a “can’t put it down” manuscript that could catch the eye of an agent or publisher and finally readers.

* Know your characters. Create a life, likes, hates, etc. for each characters. Even if most of the information never makes its way into the plot/story. The more real a character is to you, the writer, the more believable he or she will be to others.
         Personally, I make charts for my characters, listing even unimportant aspects such as favorite color, food likes and dislikes, as well as major components of their personalities and physical appearances. I have each character on a separate file card with his/her name at the top.

* Characters needs strengths and weaknesses. Whether characters are likable or unlikable, they need good traits or strengths and bad traits or weaknesses. No living person is one dimensional, so neither should fictitious ones be. Even Superman had one weakness, even if an external one.

         One sub-point - characters can be unlikable, protagonists, or evil without being excessively vulgar or profane.

* Flaws and passions should be revealed in layers. This idea ties into “show, don’t tell.” A writer can write a paragraph or more explaining the personality traits, feelings, strengths, and/or weaknesses of a character, boring a reader to tears; or the author can reveal layer by layer of the character through the plot and storyline - showing the reader the character rather than telling about the character.

* Be able to “show” your characters’ intentions. Thomas Mullen, author of The Last Town on Earth, stated when interviewed for the January 2008 The Writer: “I wanted to create a novel in which all the characters are motivated by good intentions, so I could play with the conflicts that would nevertheless result.”
         Yes, some characters in some stories or novels have evil intentions; but sometimes bad things can happen even if a character has good intentions. Knowing your characters intentions and revealing them through the plot helps make living, breathing characters.
         If you, the writer, know the whys and hows of your characters actions, thoughts, and words, then you can help the reader know, too.

* Observe and listen to people around you, or use your memory. Watch how people act and react. Listen to how they talk. Remember people you knew and how they acted and reacted, their foibles. Use those ideas in developing characters.

         I have offered but a few tips for developing characters that breathe, that live for anyone who reads your work. 

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  1. I never really thought of it before, but my favorite books all have 'real' characters. The 'good guys' have flaws, and the 'bad guys' aren't always bad. Robert Jordan is a master at it. That's probably why I've re-read that 12 book series over a dozen times.

  2. No one is perfect, not even in a book -- if the book is well-written, that is.

  3. Vivian, excellent article. I especially like the point about good intentions leading to evil results --

  4. Thanks, Peggy. It takes all types of person traits, including flaws, to make a believable character.

  5. Great post. I just wrote a short story about one of my characters in my novel. It helped a lot to explain where he came from and why he does some things. Not sure the story will ever see the light of day, but I think it's a helpful way to make a character real.