Making your Characters Come to Life
by Yvonne Navarro
You see it in submission guidelines all the time: “We want character-driven fiction.” “We’re looking for interesting characters.” “The story must have multi-dimensional characters.” And you think, “I got this.”
But do you?
Let’s just throw out all those editorial terms right now and go for the single, magical word that your character needs to be:
You might think you can snap your fingers-- Voila!-- and imbue breath, heart, mind and body into a fictional person, but nope. Not happenng. There’s no magical way to do this, and it’s not just backstory that makes something on a piece of paper come to life in the mind of a reader. Picture this:
Susan (A), seventeen years old, has short brown hair. She crosses the street and stumbles on the curb at the other side, but she keeps going because she has to get to class on time.
Hmmm. That’s pretty dull. What if we knew a little more about Susan before we wrote those two sentences?
(Susan found out two days ago that her little brother has cancer. She had long brown hair until yesterday, when she cut and sold it, and donated the proceeds to a cancer research company. She wanted to quit school and help take care of her brother, but he made her promise to get her high school diploma.)
Seventeen-year-old Susan (B) crosses the street. Her hair, cut to chin length, tickles the side of her jaw; this makes her think of why she cut it and her eyes burn as she recalls how sick her little brother is, how lousy he felt this morning. She’d wanted to stay home with him but he’d insisted she head to school. “I might be gone by the summer,” he’d told her. “But you’ll still have the future.” For a twelve-year-old, he was too darned smart. Tears fog her vision and she stumbles on the curb, but she keeps going. She has to. For him.
That’s better, but it’s still only a start, depending on whether you working on a short story or something longer. Yes, you’ve created a character, in this case, Susan. But how well do you really know her? I’m a firm believer in knowing way more about my character than will ever be revealed in the story. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “method actor.” That’s when an actor immerses him- or herself so fully into the role they’re playing that they tie emotional moments from their own lives into the part. Some even refuse to break role outside of the set, other subject themselves to the physical excesses the character endures so as to make their acting more realistic.
Going back to writing, think of yourself as a method writer. No, you can’t physically endure all the things you’re dreaming up for your character (unless you’re insane, but that’s the subject of your own blog entry, not mine). But you can do it mentally, in a sort of “method writing” procedure. Start by focusing on your character. No, don’t just think about him, or her. I’m talking serious focus here. Method writing. Inside your head, become your character.
So now what do you see?
If your answer is the computer screen as you scrunch up your face and try to squeeze out a few more words about Susan, then you’re doing it wrong. Don’t see the computer screen, or look at the words you’re typing.
See what Susan sees.
Here’s my secret. When my POV (point of view, for newbies) is Susan and I’m typing about her life, in my head, I am Susan. I’ve become her. The world I see is the world in front of Susan’s eyes, and my brain is just telling my fingers to record it. Everything else just... goes away. There was a long month some years ago when I was crunched on the deadline for CONCRETE SAVIOR, so I used a recorder in the car to and from work every day, dictating the next scene in the book. It’s a good thing I’m a decent driver, because it was like I’d become hypnotized. Everything I saw was in my mind: Brynna’s next words and actions, those of other characters-- it all played across my mind’s eye. Not the road or the traffic lights-- nothing. I’d pull up to the gate on Fort Huachuca and show them my ID, and not recall a single thing about the fourteen-mile drive from home to where I was. I am not kidding. And yeah-- a little terrifying. Maybe a lot.
So let’s revisit Susan:
Even though she’s staring at the ground as she crosses the street, Susan (C)’s eyes are blurred with tears and she stumbles when she gets to the curb. She can’t think of anything but how sick her little brother was this morning, the chemo already tearing through his body. He was only twelve-- would he make it to seventeen, like she was now? He’d been so sad when he found out she’d cut her hair for money and donated the cash to cancer research. Her books felt like lead in her arms, pinching the skin at the crook of her elbow. She’d wanted to stay home with him but he’d made her promise to go to school, and to keep going, until she graduated. “Don’t drop out. I might be gone by the summer,” he’d said. “But you’ll still have the future.”
Switch to your character’s POV and everything changes. Are you working on a novel, where the character’s going to be around awhile? Here’s an interesting and fun thing to help you truly know your own creation: make a detailed character chart. I do this for any character who’s going to have more than a passing appearance in every book I write. I picked it up back when I was writing my first novel, and it was such a help that I’ve used it ever since. Unfortunately I don’t remember where I got the idea, just that it was way before widespread Internet use (which means probably in a newsletter, which back then were sent via the U.S. Mail). You can find loads of examples by searching on Google, but my version goes deeply into personal habits, flaws, family members, motivations, personality, preferences (favorite color, decorating style, music, etc.). It asks some hard questions, and if you can’t answer these, my belief is you haven’t thought enough about the personality of the man or woman you’re trying to bring into being. Check it out:
What special trait does this character have to make him/her unique, and why?
Why is he/she different from other similar characters?
Does this character have a secret that he/she is hiding?
How do others see this person?
How does he/she see and feel about his- or herself?
Present or future problem, if any, and how it will get worse?
Yes, these are difficult questions to answer, but you’ll find they’re worth the effort when they help you effortlessly morph Susan (A) into Susan (C). My personal opinion is that you’ve succeeded when you’re recording what your brain is seeing... and even you didn’t expect what your character decides to do. That’s when you’ve made a multi-dimensional character.
That’s when you made someone alive.
Yvonne Navarro lives in southern Arizona and is the author of twenty-two published novels and well over a hundred short stories. Her writing has won the HWA's Bram Stoker Award plus a number of other writing awards. She draws and paints, and is married to author Weston Ochse. They dote on their three Great Danes, Ghoulie, Grimmy, and Groot, and a talking, people-loving parakeet named BirdZilla. Visit her at www.yvonnenavarro.com or on Facebook.
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