Characters: How To Make Them Come To Life

Does plot define the characters or do characters define the plot? This is one of those old arguments that you'll almost always hear at writers' groups or when novelists get together. So which is right? I'm going to stay firmly on the fence here and say - they both are. Your idea defines your characters and your characters (almost inevitably) affect your story. It's one of those things and happens as characters 'mature' within your story.

Fiction is not like real life in that fictional characters never do things outside their character profile (we'll discuss that in a moment). Whilst you, even though being a sober and reflective sort, may well take it into your head one day to run naked through the park, take up skysurfing or climb El Capitan, your sober, reflective character would never, ever do this. Your reader simply wouldn’t accept it. Fictional characters are dependable. They don’t have whims, caprices or fancies. They may be axe murderers, astronauts or detectives but they stay in character. Let them run loose and you’ll lose credibility, the plot - and your reader’s interest.

That's not to say they must be wooden dummies - far from it. They have feelings and emotions, likes and dislikes, habits and mannerisms just like real people. They may even have whims - as long as it's in character. The thing they don't do is change their basic character. They don't start out as level-headed bank employees whose idea of a good time is watching a DVD movie at home on a Friday night and suddenly turn into debauched philanderers who have a drug habit that is a major source of Colombia's income. Sure, the terrible things that happen to them during the course of your book may put so much strain on them mentally that they may do something that they wouldn't normally do - but their character, the 'who they are' doesn't alter.

The easy way to make your characters behave themselves is by using a character 'fact sheet'. If you would like a sample one to look at it can be found here - print one off and make as many copies as you like. I'll list it below anyway for your convenience and it can of course be just written on a handy piece of paper.

Character Fact Sheet.

Name:

Gender:

Character type:

Any connection to the lead character?

Age:

Physical appearance:

- Height

- Build

 -Hair

- Eye colouring:

Habits and mannerisms:

Speaking:

- accent

- language

- patterns

Personality traits:

Home or personal life:

Career or work:

Main Strengths:

Weaknesses:

Goal within story:

Let's have a look through these headings and what they mean.

Name: Sounds obvious but give it plenty of consideration. If this is your main character their name should be easy to pronounce - it's not easy for a reader to get around a name like Vladimir Cryszyk, even if your character is Eastern European! However, Ivan Rohov is just as in keeping geographically - and much easier to remember! Too, your character's name should fit with who they are - it's a brave move to call a weedy little buck-toothed guy in glasses something like Roland Wildblood!

Gender is of course self-explanatory unless you're doing a story involving transsexuals!

Character type: The role this particular character plays within your story. It could be any of the following - lead character, opposition (the 'baddie'), confidant (in detective novels this would be Watson to Holmes), romantic involvement (usually to your lead character),  minor character,'walk-on' character etc. It's important to remember that, until you have completed the character fact sheet, your character will not really be 'alive'. They may well be reasonably well-formed in your head but the difference it makes to write this information down is significant. You may well find that the character, as written down, is not quite the one you have a mental image of. This is because the human mind really can only hold so many facts at once - a bit like a computer's 'RAM' - and, unlike a computer, human memory is a fugitive and unreliable thing. Writing your character down on paper gives a 'set' to him or her - and you can then fine-tune your character to your story requirements.

Any connection to the lead character?: This point can be used to highlight any connection - however slight - to your lead character, the lynch-pin of your story. It may be a very strong connection, such as a family tie. It may be slight - a waiter in the lead character's favourite diner. It just helps to place the character in relation to your lead character.

Age: This should be considered carefully - after all, you can't realistically have your lead character performing James Bond-type antics if he's a retired bookkeeper! The other aspect of your lead character's age is that it should, ideally, be relevant to your target audience. By this I mean that if you are aiming your book at a readership in their late twenties, then that's your lead character's ideal age. It lets the reader identify more strongly with your lead character and the chances of keeping them interested are increased.

Physical appearance: It's very easy to get things wrong if these points are not written down. I've read more than one book where the hero has started out with brown eyes only to end up with blue ones! Again, this lets you avoid any major gaffes when it comes to things like physical abilities - if your lead character is a short, thick-set man with a limp he's unlikely to be able to chase down a fleet-footed mugger.

Habits and mannerisms: This section really does start to let you fine-tune your character. Maybe your character rubs their ear when thinking. Maybe they have a nervous tic in one eye when under pressure. Maybe they jingle loose change in a pocket or whistle out of tune. It can be anything. Think of some of your family and friends and try to identify some of their little habits. It may not be until you actively seek them out that you realise that they are there but it helps define who they are - and you will be amazed at how it brings a character 'alive' if handled carefully. It's not necessary to make these habits stand out like a circus act - unless of course your character is wildly eccentric - so be subtle. Try to make the mannerism just identifiable enough so that your reader can tell who it is you're writing about if you only mention the habit. For example:

"Jenny knew instantly who was standing in the darkened room. The sound of softly jingling keys told her all she wanted to know." So will the reader if you have previously slid in that particular mannerism of a certain character! Of course, if you want to keep the reader in suspense either don't mention this mannerism or do it in the most off-handed way possible as far back in your story as possible. This is a little tricky to get right but impressive when it works.

Speaking: Nearly everyone speaks differently. If you write down a 'speaking tree' (similar to a family tree), the main 'root' may well be language - what is your character's native language? Then the next 'branch' would be accent - if he or she was an English native speaker, their accent would be totally different if they were British, American or Australian. If they spoke Spanish as their native language but, in your story, spoke predominantly English, they would probably have a Spanish accent. This could be further 'coloured' by where they grew up - someone from Chicago would have a completely different accent from someone from Des Moines - even if they were an English speaking person whose native tongue was Spanish!

You can probably see that this is an important aspect of your characters, especially your lead character and other major characters in your story. Another aspect of speaking is the 'speech pattern'. Does your character um and ah a lot? Do they speak at machine-gun rapidity? Are the casually profane? Are they in the habit of using pedantically correct grammar? Do they mumble? Do they call everyone 'buddy' or 'mate'?

Speech patterns, accents and mannerisms are powerful defining points for your characters. However, it is essential not to fall into the trap of creating a caricature character by exaggerating their speech patterns and so forth (unless of course this is what you intend). I'll be frank: this is one aspect of character writing that is not at all easy. A fine line must be walked between defining your character's background, upbringing and social grouping effectively and producing what can easily become a two-dimensional stereotype. How to learn how to do this? Well, read novels that place a lot of emphasis on characters and the way they speak and act. Then write. And write. The write some more. It takes practice - and the more you practice the better you will become. Did I ever say this was going to be easy?

Personality Traits: Every character also has a different personality. Heck, even identical twins do! Your characters' personalities define who they are and also their role within your story. The 'opposition' character will probably have character traits that your readers won't like - he or she may be cruel, or avaricious - or just plain downright nasty! Your lead character, however, must be likeable. If they aren't, it will be an uphill struggle to get your readers to want your character to 'win'. That's not to say they must be a paragon of virtue - everyone has their faults, after all - but they must possess qualities that your readers approve of. Courage is a good quality to instil into your lead character, as are intelligence, loyalty and even a sense of humour.

All your characters should have definite personalities. Minor characters don't have to be described as fully as main characters but they must be 'fleshed out' if they are to be believable. Don't forget that, although your characters are a figment of your imagination, to your readers they must come across as living, breathing people. This means that they had to have an existence prior to stepping into the pages of your book - in writing terms, they must have a 'backstory' - their very own background.

Having a background for characters, from a writer's point of view, helps to make them real - for the writer. The character's background helps to steer the writer's course along the right path when writing about that particular character. Trickled into the story, a character's background also lets the reader feel that hey, this is a real person who had parents, went to school, graduated, dated, got married, had kids, a mortgage, hopes and fears - everything that goes towards moulding a real person into what they are. Resist at all costs the temptation to introduce your character and then trot out their life story for all to see. This was a common occurrence in 19th. century novels (try Tolstoy for size) but simply doesn't work in the modern novel.

Home or Personal Life: This also helps to make your character real. Think about where your character lives, what their social life is like. Are they married? Is the marriage a happy one? Does your character have kids - maybe they are a single parent? The home life of your character is the 'right now' section of the background. It's what their background has led them to - how they are living when your reader meets them in the pages of your book.

Try and get everything in here. Think about your own personal life and how you live, where you go, what you do. Write it all down - you'll probably be amazed at what you've written. People's home lives are far more complex than you might think and your character, to be believable, has to have just such a complex, many-faceted existence or they won't seem quite 'real'.

Also consider the 'private' life of your character. These are things that he or she probably wouldn't go around telling everyone. Not because they are bizarre or criminal (although they could be, of course!) but just things that your character does or likes. It's things like hobbies, what kind of films he or she likes, if they hate bananas, love apples, like dogs, hate cats - that sort of thing. Something that, if your character went and told someone else in your book, the other would probably turn round and say 'I never knew that about you'. That's because it's part of your character's private life.

Career or Work: This is much more your character's 'public face' and is often tied to what happens in the story - though again, not always. Think about what they do for a living. Will this make them ideal for their role within your story? In Jaws, Chief Brody did his duty as a police officer in catching the man-eating shark. His job was intrinsic to his role. In The Da Vinci Code, however, Robert Langdon is no Action Man. As a Harvard professor he's thrown in at the deep end to sink or swim. His job is crucial to the story but has no direct bearing on it - he doesn't feel it his duty (at the outset anyway) to solve the puzzle and is a somewhat unwilling accomplice to the whole thing - despite being the lead character!

This is a writing ploy extensively used to illustrate character development. Take poor old Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R.Tolkien's The Hobbit. He has a nice, easy and comfortable life until one day he is dragged off - almost literally! - on a tremendous adventure. Tolkien masterfully turns the shy, retiring and unwordly Bilbo into nothing less than a hero who conquers fear and terror to win through. In no way did Bilbo's work (he didn't work!) prepare him or impel him onto his quest. Like many lead characters he was caught up in forces beyond his control and had little option but to grit his teeth and push on.

Characters whose work life require them to do certain things (as in Chief Brody) can only grow into a hero if they perform acts that are way beyond the call of duty. The Bilbos of fiction, however, can be shown to struggle to perform their tasks and their courage therefore becomes evident. This type of character is very powerful within any story if handled carefully - the 'growth' must not be too quick or easy and the character should have to screw their courage up for ever more dangerous and life-threatening acts.

Main Strengths: When I mentioned personality traits above, I said that your reader must like your main character and gave some main 'likeable' virtues. It's usual, however, for your characters - especially your lead and main characters - to have a single main strength. Maybe it's tenacity, or kindness, or tolerance. Choose one that fits your character's needs - you will be surprised when you write it into your story how it 'solidifies' your character.

Weaknesses: These are just as important and a crucial part of the human condition. Your lead character may be a rock-fisted, granite-jawed all action hero but without any weaknesses he will just be a cardboard cut-out. So maybe he's arrogant. Perhaps he's vain or selfish to some degree. Perhaps he lacks any real social skills. It really is just as necessary for your character to have at least one weakness as it his for him or her to have great strengths. Many a plot has turned on a lead character's single flaw, plunging them into terrible danger or allowing the bad guys to gain the upper hand!

Goal within story: Every main character within your story has a goal. For your lead character it's to resolve the crisis that has turned his or her life upside down. For other characters the goal is obviously different, sometimes dramatically so. We'll look at some other types of character below - but remember that all main characters are 'put together' using the layout and points listed above.

So who are the other main characters? Although there may be many characters within your story, some of lesser consequence and some greater, there are certain types of character that appear in stories, especially novels, time after time. This is because they have important roles to play in the development and eventual outcome of your story. The usual writing terms for them are:

The Opposition (the baddies)

The Confidant (The lead character's helper)

The Romantic Involvement (not always present)

The Opposition is the character or organisation who presents your lead with the greatest barrier to success within your story. However, an organisation cannot be a character so the opposition in this case must be a representative of that organisation. Ian Fleming's James Bond continually battled against organisations such as SMERSH, but his opposition was always one person in their employ. Again, the opposition should not be acts of God such as earthquakes or floods. In such 'disaster' stories the event, though monumental, is never the opposition. In Jaws, for instance, the opposition wasn't the shark - it was the Mayor of Amity who was determined to block Chief Brody's attempt to close the beaches during holiday season, thus losing the Mayor a fortune in tourist revenue.

Your opposition must be a powerful figure, a match or even superior in strength and resources to your lead character. Why? Well, put simply, if the opposition isn't strong and deadly, if he isn't a match for your lead character - there's not likely to be a good conflict and the book will end with the first clash of the two characters.

A good point to remember is that the opposition character should have his or her own distinct and real goal within the story. Even the most dastardly villains commit crime for what is to them a good reason. Without this goal - which your opposition should believe in and be justified in their own eyes as worthwhile - your opposition merely becomes a figure whose sole purpose is to stand in your lead character's way. What happens then is that the opposition is used as a mere plot instrument, handy when the writer needs to block the lead character's success. In this scenario the opposition pops up like a jack-in-the-box, twirls hi moustache and sneers as he pulls the switch/lights the fuse of the bomb/cuts the rope the lead is hanging from. It's cartoon stuff.

Another point to remember is that the opposition character need not be evil or a criminal. Again, take Jaws. The Mayor of Amity was scared that, if Brody closed the beaches, local business would suffer and he would lose money. He felt responsibility to business owners. For the purposes of the book he is characterised as a greedy, devious man. However, it wouldn't take too many changes to the character to make him the lead and Brody the villain, a scaremonger who wants Amity businesses to fail for his own unknown purposes.

The reason that this shift can be done is that both characters in this book believe that what they are doing is right - for them. Hey, it might make a really good story! Change the place, let's say somewhere in Kenya, make the shark a man-eating lion that no-one sees (until it's too late) - the Mayor wants people to invest in new business, the Brody character is a local chief who doesn't want strangers on his land and knows man-eating lions don't go down too well with investors - easy, isn't it? But it only works because, again, the two central characters are convinced in the rightness of what they are doing. It's a great point to remember.

So - the goal of the opposition is to stand in the way of the lead character achieving his or her goal - not just to throw a spanner in the works at points where the action begins to cool down or sag!

The Confidant is a main character that appears in the vast majority of novels.  They always help the lead character to achieve their goal. Again referring to Jaws (I do like that book!) Chief Brody's confidant is his wife, Ellen. She listens as he tells her how things are going with his hunt for the shark. Now, you might think that this is a perfectly natural thing for her to do - after all, Brody is her husband. Yet Peter Benchley is here very clever: discussing the shark with someone else - a deputy of his for example - might not have let Brody 'open up' as much, and some of his feelings may well have remained unsaid, repressing his character. That's why the confidant is best drawn from the lead character's immediate circle of friends or colleagues - it would be entirely natural for him or her to discuss problems and situations with them.

Confidants are popular in detective fiction. Holmes had Watson, Dalziel has Pascoe, Poirot had Hastings. One of the reasons why detectives have 'sidekicks' is that, when working out the intricacies of the case, they can talk to a human being rather than muse silently. In real life this would not be a problem. For a writer it can pose a considerable challenge. Long passages of introspective musing take very skilful handling indeed if the reader is to remain involved and interested. If, however, the lead can bounce ideas off the confidant, or ask their opinion, or even have a massive disagreement with them, the result is always more interesting simply due to the fact that dialogue is a  much more dynamic writing form than narrative.

Choose your confidant with care. The one thing that really falls flat is having a confidant who miraculously pops up out of nowhere as soon as your lead character needs to talk to someone or chew over a problem. This is a common mistake amongst fledgling writers. The lead reaches a point where they need to make that decision and presto! the confidant appears like a rabbit from a hat. This type of confidant really has no reason to exist except as a sounding-board for the lead and your reader will spot this in a flash. The confidant here is simply not a 'real person' - merely a plot device. Be wary of this!

The Romantic Involvement. This character, whose aim within the story is either to attract the lead character's sexual or romantic interest or to keep that interest, is a big presence in any romantically-biased novel and indispensable for this kind of writing. However, an all-action or suspense novel may not require this character type, though it has to be said that most do have them in their pages. Why? Because it gives added depth to the story and further establishes the main characters as 'real people', with feelings and emotions beyond those necessary to merely make the story work.

A common theme for this character is that it is a woman who initially loathes the lead but is unable to remain unattracted to him (remember 'Romancing The Stone'?). She is often a strong character in her own right and proves no easy catch for the lead! It provides a great undercurrent of sexual tension in your story and there is nothing quite as tense as an unconsummated affair - especially when you lead your reader on to the fact that these two are just made for each other!

There are of course many other ways to handle the romantic involvement's character. Your lead may be a woman who has a male admirer, or again the male admirer may initially be cool towards her - perhaps she's a headstrong sort and he feels annoyed by her outgoing nature. This again is a common theme in period romances.

The one thing to remember is that the lead character and the romantic involvement should always, at your story's end, be together as a couple. The process by which this happens is entirely up to you as a writer but anything that adds to the tension of the story - as long as it does not take over from the main theme - is good in terms of reader satisfaction. Not everyone may like romance in the genre form but a good helping of sexual tension can work absolute wonders for the credibility (and readability) of your book.

Other Characters. There will of course be other characters in your story. These do need defining as to the relationship they have with your lead character - maybe they work together, go to the same gym, are members of the same Lodge. It's up to you but they must have a relationship to preferably your lead character or, if not, certainly one of the other main characters. If this is not the case they are then 'walk-on parts' as I call them - the waiter, the shop assistant, the man walking the dog. They are in the book but only serve as props, in effect - you can't buy something from a shop without a shop assistant being there but you don't need to know their life story!

Minor characters  (as opposed to 'walk-ons') must be watched carefully, as they can tend to change dramatically if care is not taken. Why? Because the temptation is there to ignore doing a character sheet for them. If this is the case you may find yourself scrabbling through your pages trying to find out if Tom has blue eyes or brown, what sort of car he drives, does he have a dog or not - I think you get the picture. Be as meticulous with minor characters as your main players although it probably isn't necessary to have as detailed a 'backstory' on them.

I'd advise even jotting down details on your 'walk-ons'. Why? Because even if you only intend to use them once they have a habit op popping up later in the book as you decide on a minor change. An outline sketch will do - it just avoids the shopkeeper turning from a slim fifty-year old woman into a brassy twenty-year old blonde!

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Index page 1. Necessary equipment. 2. The importance of the workplace 3. Choosing the right book for you to write. 4. Ideas and how to get them. 5. How to plan a story. 7. Plotting your story. 8. Self-editing and the final draft. 9. Agents and Publishers 10. Writers' groups. 11. Writing competitions. 12. Reference works.