Making Characters Come to Life



talk-845619_640As I’m trying to finish my first (and very rough) draft of Stinging Power, I’m a little troubled about my characters. They seem to be flat, almost like cardboard, with a few flashes of life here and there.

The trick will be to make them live and breath, and become people my readers love. The challenge is figuring out just how to do that.

Everyone loves a villain, especially one they can have a little sympathy for. No one loves a hero who is so perfect he’d never ever be even tempted to raise his voice at another driver.

All the writing books advise writing complex and flawed characters.

Easy to say, not so easy to execute.

I’m struggling with adding layers and dimensions to my characters. Usually my first ideas are stereotypes. Or anti-stereotypes. Or just plain silly.

So I fall back on one of my best sources of inspiration: real life.

Observing real people in action, with all their flaws, inconsistencies and complexities, can help generate ideas for how to create characters that seem to come to life.

Here are a few things I’ve observed in the past few days:

  1. The emotional reaction isn’t what I expected

In trying to talk through a difficult situation with someone, when I was trying to communicate I was trying to help, the other person got more and more defensive. I was expecting cooperation to solve the problem, not a dig-in-your-heels kind of defensive move.

This led me to a second observation

  1. People’s emotional reaction is often more than just one emotion at a time.

Someone can be happy and sad at the same time. Or angry and amused. Disappointed and fearful.

Character #1 can be exhibiting signs of both emotions. Character #2 can react to either of these, misreading which emotion is stronger in #1. Which can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings.

A third observation had to do with people telling the truth

  1. Or, as I observed, people sometimes lie about trivial stuff

In a conversation, I asked if someone had ever used a certain company. “Never heard of it,” was the answer. I talked a little bit about the firm, and what I had heard. The response I got: “Oh, I’ll never use them. No one I know has anything good to say about them.” Really?

Another person will say they don’t like a particular brand of chocolates. When questioned why, I find out they’ve never tried them.

So I had to wonder why these people were lying. In the first case, that person had made up their mind what they wanted to do and wasn’t going to listen to any more suggestions. In the second case, it was because they felt the brand in question wasn’t elite enough.

Throwing in some lies to the conversation can really make things more interesting, especially if you pay attention to the kinds of things the character will lie about (and what they won’t.) Why someone tells a lie shows the reader a lot about that character.

This can even become more fun when the other characters are convinced the person is lying, and come up with their own theories as to why.

To sum it all up, our characters, like the people in our lives, aren’t always as cooperative as we’d like them to be. The more of these little obstacles we throw at them, the more we can make them come to life.

So to help my writing along, I’m going to keep observing. Just hope it doesn’t make the people around me nervous.



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