Breathe Life Into Your Characters – Part II

In Part I we talked about the most basic 5 features that each of your characters must have in order to be seen clearly by your reader. At the end of the piece there was a short exercise: to create two characters and get to know them well, using the points made in the article.

You’ve all done that, right? Sure? Not fibbing? Ok, then. We’ll go on.

We’ve created our Jack and Jane using physical attributes, voice, strengths and weaknesses, personality and emotional dimension. We know them well, from their very topmost curl of their carefully gelled hair to the very tip of their stripy socks, we know what they like and dislike, what they sound like when they’ve missed the bus and when they order pizza and even how annoyed they get when a seagull plops on their heads.

That makes them real enough, right?

Um… not quite.

They’re still a little two-dimensional. You can reach every side of a piece of paper without lifting your pencil off the sheet, can’t you? Well, it’s the same here. No matter how many words you use or how many layers of basic characteristics you overlap, it never gets deeper than… well… skin deep.

What makes characters real is not what they look or sound like (though I know one or two people shallow enough to walk away satisfied with just that much), but life itself.

So now comes the wizard stuff: we need to breathe life into these drawings.

1.      Interpersonal Relationships

Unless your book is a complete monologue end to end, you are going to have more than one character in it. Once you have a minimum of two, it would be reasonable to assume that they will ‘bump’ into each other along the way.

This is where you have to decide who has the upper hand – because someone has to. Some people are born leaders and some hate to make decisions, some are good negotiators and some hate haggling, some mothers excel at emotional blackmail and some cannot say ‘no’ to their family’s every whim.

Different people have different strengths. You know them well, so just go one step further and pin down the ‘flow’ of influence from one person to another. Maybe Jane is better at making quick decisions, though she is not a particularly strong-willed person. Think of how you can use that in the story to make it more realistic. Maybe Jack is brave and strong and knowledgeable in all things to do with… say, travel. The rest of your crew would naturally flock to him in circumstances that require planning for a trip, but Jane would be the one who wouldn’t wait. She’d act impulsively, even when there’s a good chance she could get things wrong. Does that make her more human? I think so. Remember – if all your characters are perfect, where will the twists and surprises come from?

Use this step as a checkpoint to verify quite how well designed your characters are. Are they clones of each other, with similar personalities? Are there character traits you lack that would have been needed to carry the story to a successful conclusion? Can you go back to the drawing board and re-design someone to include what’s missing?

2.      Coping With Stressful Situations

Now that you’ve ‘caught up’ with any adjustments to Jane, Jack and the rest of the pack, you need to determine what changes are likely to occur when they are faced with a stressful situation. In real life you don’t really know what a person is capable of until you’ve seen them backed into a corner. Will a mother lash out at someone threatening her son? Would she kill to protect him? Would the geek retaliate when the school bully takes his lunch money? What about if that money was supposed to buy food for the whole of his starving family? How would he react then?

Use the conflict in your story to help your characters grow up, improve themselves, conquer their fears, live. Only when they are alive will your readers commit to going all the way to hell and back alongside them and remember the journey.

3.      Suitability

This is a difficult concept to explain because it relies a lot on being aware of your readers’ social experience and expectations. This is where you check whether your character behaves in a way that is suitable for someone their age, of their temperament, with their personality, etc. Are they the best person for the task in hand?

It is a subjective thing, and very difficult to grasp.

We want our characters to be different, to stand out. And that is perfectly fine. What is not brilliant is to make them so outlandish that the puzzle pieces of your story no longer fit together. When the reader gets to the point where they stop and say ‘wait a minute… that will never happen’ you’ve lost them. They have stepped out of your book, and they’re about to put it down and walk away.

And the worst thing is – different readers reach this point at different stages. A character is suitable for a certain role because we imagine, based on our observations, that they would be doing that job, or saying those lines, or reacting that way, or pulling that gun out of their pocket.

There’s nothing wrong with a character which doesn’t fit the mould in one respect, but try to keep it believable by letting it be normal in others. It would be hard to believe that a two-year old could save the world, for example, but if you add some attributes to this child that make the reader say, ‘hey, if he can do that, he can do anything’ solves your problem. Just don’t expect the kid to know how to reload a gun, yet.

Try to think back for a minute – how many times you read a book or saw a movie and wondered why the protagonist can’t do something that to you is really obvious. In Twilight, for example, how come Bella doesn’t carry a mobile phone with her at all times? She’s a teenager, she’d be expected to, and that one little thing would have made her so much more credible, not to mention getting her out of so many sticky situations. See what I mean?

4.      Name

What does it matter what you call your characters? Jack and Jane will do, won’t they? Er, no.

Unless you want to grab their hands and blend into the background together forever more.

A well thought out name will add to the look and feel of a character, add texture to your story and even play with the reader’s expectation of what this character might say or do. I bet that if you took ten minutes to think about it you could come up with ten different character names that pretty much define it. J K Rowling uses names brilliantly to achieve a superbly consistent, textured effect; you can picture a person by reading or uttering their name, you can tell in an instant if they’re a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ and you can even pinpoint where about in the social makeup of her world these people fit.

Stuck for inspiration? You can always look back to legends and mythology, or think through movies you liked and even mess about with common names to create something new. Whatever you do, take your time finding the right name – it could be the one thing a reader remembers you by.

5.      Cultural background

In everything we do, we show where we’ve come from. If you look close enough, you can see how people of different origins react differently. Sometimes it is a really subtle thing, especially in cosmopolitan nations or cities, where people from many different cultural backgrounds have lived alongside each other for years and years. Some other times though, you’ve got no excuse. Ignore this and risk looking like you can’t be bothered – the choice is yours.

If you imagine Jack or Jane standing in line to buy tickets to see their favourite rock band – front row seats – and they’ve sold out right in front of them, they would be disappointed, annoyed, incensed, livid even. If Jack was a reserved Brit, he would perhaps tuck his chin, glower into the distance and walk away, hands balled in anger. But what if he was a hot-blooded Italian? What would he do then? He’d still be angry, of course, but he would also shout, bang his fist on the counter, wind himself up into a much deeper frenzy than his alter ego.

It is always worth getting to know that side of your characters. All too often we see a mother-child relationship, for example, which fits perfectly within the author’s society and culture, but has no link to where the story is supposed to be unfolding. Family relationships in particular are very different in different countries and easy enough to research and get right.


Thank you for staying with me to the end of my little rant on the subject of creating real characters, living fictional people with physical traits and diverse relationships. I hope it helps a little. If there is something obvious I’ve missed don’t keep it to yourself, but use the comment box below, please. And if you think this article is perfect, well… you could tell me that, too.


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