WHETHER YOU WRITE MEMOIR OR FICTION, developing your main characters on the page so that they seem like living, breathing beings is just plain hard. Conversely, it’s easy to make them into caricatures instead of characters. And a weak or unbelievable character will jar your reader out of your story’s dream.
You know what I’m talking about — we’ve all started reading books (fiction or nonfiction) in which the characters were like cardboard cutout stand-ins for real people. The characters just too one-sided or shallow to care about, their actions inconsistent with their supposed motivations. In my house, these books end up in the garbage bin.
So what makes a character come alive for us as readers?
Characters on the page must seem like someone you know. Someone you could meet at the grocery store or school or work or the bowling alley.
Creating characters like this takes work — observation, envisioning, planning, and pre-writing. You need to bring your characters to life on pages outside of your book, then bring bits and pieces of them into play as needed within the context of your story.
Here’s what you need to know about your main characters before you add them to your manuscript:
Everyone has unique or quirky mannerisms — a tick, a way of arching their eyebrows, picking at their fingers, waving their arms, laughing. How does your character move through the world? Does he fill a room when he enters it or is he invisible? Does she move fluidly and with grace, or clumsily clomp across the floor in her heels?
Exercise: To write mannerisms realistically, you need to practice observing and describing real people. Go to a public space, such as a coffeeshop or park, and watch how people move.
Use a character journal to describe mannerisms you see, including facial expressions, the ways they gesticulate, their postures, whether they keep personal space or not, etc. Use these observations as a library of sorts for your fiction characters. If you’re writing about a real character, observe that character (or draw from memory) to describe his or her mannerisms. Interview close friends and family to get their take on the way that person moves (or moved).Characters on the page must seem like someone you could know. Click To Tweet
What assumptions and belief systems does your character carry around with him? Who are the biggest influences in his life? What was his family like and what events and traumas did this person experience that helped to fashion how he sees the world? Is your character religious or agnostic? And if religious, what religion?
Exercise: Summarize your character’s family history from childhood to the present day (the timeframe in which he or she appears in your story).
Go deeper and explore the attitudes and motivations of your character’s parents and other family members and how they influenced your character’s perceptions of the world.
What was the one, big event in your character’s life that changed him?
What drives your character to do the things she does? What does your character value and want most out of life? How do these drives affect her choices?
Exercise: Place your character in three difficult situations. How does she react? What does she feel? What does she do? Does she try to hide her reactions or are they immediately apparent to everyone around her?
Examples of situations you could use (I’m trading off using “he” and “she,” but gender is irrelevant to the situation):
◊ The doctor just told her that she has inoperable cancer and has only one month to live.
◊ He lost his job. It’s a recession, so jobs are hard to come by and he’s overextended financially.
◊ She realizes her significant other is cheating on her.
◊ He loses a close friend or relative to a sudden death.
◊ She has recently moved to a new state or country, where she knows no one and the culture is completely different from her place of origin.
◊ He’s the victim of a violent assault or financial scam.
◊ Her house is on fire. What of her possessions does she choose to save, if any? And why?
Conflicts arise out of those inner needs and motivations we just discussed. How do your character’s motivations conflict with the needs of those around her? Does she have needs that conflict with one another, such as a strong need for safety that competes with a need for adventure? How does she view that conflict? And how does that conflict play out in her life?
Exercise: Interview your character. Start with simple questions: what is your character’s favorite color, ice cream, movie, and music? What are his favorite hobbies? Ask her to tell you about herself. Ask follow-up questions about how she feels about her current situation in life. What does she like and hate about herself? What is she working on? How does your character’s beliefs about life conflict with her needs? Is she aware of her needs or in denial about them? Does she have a habit that conflicts with her sense of what she should do, such as spending more money than she has, or falling in love with the wrong types of men? Does she worry that she’s being selfish? Do her needs compete with her child’s or partner’s needs in her own mind?
As your character answers your questions, new follow-up questions will come to mind.
Everyone has a way they like to appear to others. How does your character present himself to others and to himself? Is she professional and polished or disheveled and undisciplined? Does he appear to be a great father and husband, while secretly he’s something else? Often, there’s conflict between a person’s outer persona, between how others see him and how he views himself.
Exercise: Describe your character from another character’s viewpoint. This can include physical appearance, actions, mannerisms, accomplishments and moral character. Then describe your character from his or her viewpoint. How does she see herself when she looks in the mirror? How does he feel about himself at work or school? How does she see herself as a woman, sister, wife, professional, etc.?
Writing believable characters takes imagination and work. These five exercises will help you develop characters with depth — characters who act in ways that are consistent with who they are; characters your readers will care about. And when that big event happens that transforms or changes your character in some way (your story arc), that change will seem inevitable and right. And real.
If you’ve used any of these exercises or have some favorites you like to use,
share your opinion in the comments!