Audiences celebrate artists whose works spring to life. But giving ‘life’ to inanimate objects requires immense skill and attention. In a writer’s case, it’s words on a page. But how can life spring from little lines of ink? Here’s 11 ways to bring your characters off the page to lodge themselves in a reader’s imagination.
1 What’s in a Name?
If you’ve spent hours poring over naming websites to find good character names, you know the challenge. Pulling one out of thin air can be a painful exercise for many writers. Names help a character sink or swim. A well-fashioned name helps you hang loads of story on them. Good names pull a reader into your story.
Thankfully, your genre narrows your search for names. If you’re writing a period piece, sci-fi, or fantasy the limited name choices make the discovery process much easier. However, finding ways to help readers differentiate characters with strange or similar names becomes its own challenge. You can help readers by not repeating the same first letters for multiple character names. Additionally, shorter names are easier for readers to remember, particularly in unfamiliar settings. Try one syllable names where you can in exotic locales.
There are plenty of resources online to help writers find character names. It’s never been easier. Even if you can’t find one that works, consider using a placeholder name and keep writing. The right name will come—and with it a spark of life.
2 A Demonstration of Distinction
Have you ever noticed a stranger in public when you weren’t trying? Was it their appearance? Their speech? Something distinct caught your attention. Making a distinct character is easy, but it won’t always bring them to life.
Distinct character traits spoil into gimmicks when handled badly. For example, let’s invent a character named Todd and give him a strong lisp. Todd calls it his ‘lithp.’ We replace a ‘th’ for an ‘s’ in much of his dialogue. Bad idea, right? It depends. If handled poorly, it will grate on a reader, but it can also make him more sympathetic. When Todd cries, “Don’t treat me like that! I’m not a worthleth perthon!” at mistreatment, it can deepen the reader’s connection with Todd. His lisp fueled with raw emotion can transcend the character trait into a more meaningful relationship with readers. The silly turns sublime.
3 Force them to Talk like Real People
Real people don’t monologue unless they’re teaching a class. People talk over each other and mishear one another on a daily basis. Your characters might not want to talk like a real person at first. During your first draft, the characters are likely to come down with a case of talking-head syndrome.
Talking-head syndrome plagues stories the world over. It is especially common in any plot heavy story which tends to drown readers in exposition. It’s your job to treat symptoms of talking-head and not let them fester into snoozing a once-excited reader.
Write characters that mumble, cut each other off, deliver incomplete statements, and lose interest in a conversation even when the other party believes the conversation is ongoing. This approach might feel like meaningless lengthening, but when handled correctly, they make for memorable character interactions that remind us of the lives around us.
4 Drive them Ahead with Clear Motives
Characters without believable motives eventually distract a reader. The larger the disconnect runs between a character’s actions and their motives, the likelier a reader will disengage. That’s because motives draw readers into the story. Obscuring character motives whether by accident or in an attempt to ratchet excitement will work in the short term but not throughout a full novel. The characters turn caricatures—not people.
Characters operating without clear motives begin to violate cause and effect. The unpredictability of this violation may make things interesting, but they lose a spark of life in the process. The result is that readers work harder to relate. The human experience on display shrinks into flat cardboard. Keeping character motives coherent and consistent takes hard work, but your readers feel the payoff.
Additionally, clear motives help readers navigate a complex field of characters. Any work that follows an expanding array of characters and story lines needs a way to keep the proceedings neatly separated. Clear character motives keep characters distinct and sorted. It helps bring each one to life.
5 Make them Squirm—Body Language
Real people talk with their bodies as much as their lips. Incorporating nonverbal communication into your characters takes practice. However, the energy such descriptions bring to a character’s presence make them worth the effort.
Learning how and when to include non-verbal communication is a lesson all its own. The best way to improve is practice. Study non-verbal communication in those around you. When do people pause and shift their weight before speaking? What about leaning back in a seat? What causes a face-scrunch? All these small details add up when incorporated into a story. They’re a surefire way to bring characters to life.
6 Give them Tangible Backstories
A character’s backstory should shadow them—even if it’s not spelled out in the plot. Often backstory is the story. That is, the homework put into the story’s setup make later payoffs work. Did they once live in another part of the world? Do they know other languages? What previous employment did they have? How did their last relationship fail, if at all?
Each added piece of backstory chips at raw stone, revealing something more lifelike beneath. This type of studied detail may seem pedantic, but not only does it give life to your characters, but it can furnish plot details later on and create ways for characters to connect and learn from each other. Readers know when they’re experiencing a well-researched character. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.
7 Realistic Reactions to Pain, Heat, Trauma, Cold, Etc.
When characters don’t react believably to their environment, they begin to phase out of reality. Putting a character through physical turmoil requires care and attention. All the excitement gained from a great action scene wilts when the story later ignores plausibility. How long does it take to heal from a gunshot? What’s the sensation hypothermia actually feel like? Your medical knowledge should reflect real life whenever possible. Even if your characters aren’t human, they should react in a consistent manner.
It’s easy during fast-paced fights for survival to lose sight of details in the chaos, but you can hamstring your story without noticing. Characters come to life when you maintain awareness of the details of their environment. When they’re grounded in their reality, readers get swept away.
8 Know Where They Sleep
You should know more about your characters than your readers ever learn. When your protagonist stumbles in from off-screen, you should know where they’ve spent their time since they last appeared. Far from being superfluous, this level of bookkeeping into the hidden corners of their lives gives your characters authenticity. They come alive.
The areas of your characters’ lives which lie unavailable to readers should be places where you, the author, have traveled. It may not be the fun part of writing to work out these smaller details, but bringing characters to life takes time and effort—and readers appreciate it.
9 Conflict Them
Drama should be at the heart of your plot, driving each character from scene to scene. Ambivalent fathers, troubled mentors, forgetful narrators—these can be found at the heart of great stories. Conflicted characters remind us of the conflicted people we interact with every day and the conflict in ourselves. Conflicted characters strengthen believability.
Make characters who are uncomfortable in their own shoes and see what happens. A plumber who hates water, a game warden who dislikes the outdoors, a man who hates other men—all of these characters brim with personality and interest. When handled well, they make for mesmerizing entertainment. They stand out in a reader’s imagination.
10 Give them a Role in the Plot
Each character should contribute to the plot. Characters who don’t contribute to advancing the story turn into dead weight if they’re around long enough. Paying off character arcs is a big part of what readers enjoy about stories and ignoring, misplacing, or dropping character arcs can frustrate readers. When characters come along for the ride with nothing to contribute, they can quickly turn lifeless.
Likewise, new characters should contribute to the plot. Their arrival should challenge, redirect, or limit the other characters, creating new possibilities and directions in your story. This injects the trajectory of the story with new interest.
It’s common to discover a character who becomes your favorite—they’re likeable, easy to write, and interesting. But they add nothing to the story. Unfortunately, they turn into a distraction. One way to deal with a writer’s pet is to save them for another story. They’re great characters, but they don’t belong in this story.
11 A Great Goodbye—Send them Off
Nobody lives forever. Your characters shouldn’t either. Great stories remind us of the paradox that nothing magnifies life like its end. Well written exits make the most memorable scenes in fiction. Whether a lengthy monologue or a wordless mutter, your character’s final moments punctuate their entire existence.
Senseless tragedy—triumph—gut-wrenching agony—peace—fiction gives us a safe way to cut with the knife of mortality. It’s a sharp tool available to any writer. Use it wisely. But do use it.