How to Bring Your Characters to Life

Some people may try and tell you that creating characters for your novel is as easy as selecting an age, gender, hair colour, and goal. But it’s not that simple. If you want your characters to compel readers to care about them enough to read your entire novel, then you have to do a lot better than create a few generic character features. You have to imbue your characters with enough life that they reach out of your novel and yank readers into their world, taking them on an adventure they’ll never forget. Here are four tips to help you achieve this:

Avoid cliché characters

A cliché character is someone who fills a certain stereotype. The Knight in Shining Armour is an example of a cliché character. This type of character is strong, brave, ridiculously good-looking, and runs around saving Damsels in Distress—another type of cliché character. He is also incredibly boring and predictable. Now I’m not saying that your story can’t have a good-hearted knight in it. But if it does, you need to break free of the Knight in Shining Armour stereotype by adding a twist. For example, instead of your knight being fearless, he could be terrified of water because when he was a boy his father tried to drown him along with his mother. Or maybe he’s a knight who doesn’t believe in violence. Small details like this add more depth to your character.

Show don’t tell

Yes, I know, that phrase is repeated on a daily basis to writers, but it’s great advice for bringing your characters to life. Instead of telling readers that your protagonist is hot-tempered and hates ice-cream, show them. Have your protagonist toss an ice-cream cone on the ground in disgust before kicking over the ice-cream vendor’s cart. Showing readers what your character is liker rather than telling them will help readers see them as people rather than as words on paper.

Give each of your characters a defining feature and mannerisms

Generally in novels, there are a wide range of characters whom readers are expected to keep track of. If you’re giving each character a standard description of hair and eye colour, then your readers will probably see your characters as a blur, struggling to differentiate each one. To avoid this, you should give your characters a defining feature, an attribution that sets them apart such as always smelling like jasmine, having oily lank hair, or having an obsession with wearing diamante headbands. Once you’ve worked out your character’s defining feature, you should consider what mannerisms they have. Why are mannerisms important? Because everyone has mannerisms—little habits they’ve developed over the years such as twirling their hair when they’re thinking. These little details really help make your characters more realistic. Some examples of mannerisms include: tilting head slightly to the right when listening to someone talk, fiddling with necklace when nervous, smacking lips together when eating etc.

Give your characters a life story

This is where the magic happens. This is where characters transform from words on paper into three-dimensional people. If you do this part correctly, you’ll know because your characters will outgrow you. They will cut themselves free from your pen and tell you what’s going to happen from now on, instead of the other way around—much like a defiant teenager who’s had enough of you controlling their life.

So how do you do this? By asking questions, lots and lots and lots of questions. The basic questions to start with are what is your goal? Why is this your goal? What’s holding you back from achieving your goal? These questions establish the basic foundation of a character; they reveal the character’s purpose and their motivation behind it. While these questions are enough to create a character, they’re not enough to bring a character to life. For that you need to ask more personal questions; you need to imagine your character has an entire life outside of your story and find out what happens in that life. Ask questions such as what are your flaws? What is your happiest childhood memory? What is your biggest regret? What’s your favourite hobby? What are your pet peeves? And for each question you ask, you should always ask why, because it provides the motive and tells you more about your character. For example, if your character answered that their favourite hobby is painting, you can assume they’re creative. But if you ask them why it’s their favourite hobby, they might answer that it’s because their mother was a painter before she died, and that painting offers a connection to her. So instead of your character just being creative, you learn that they had a close relationship with their mother and painting is a way for them to try and re-access it. These little defining details are really what bring a character to life.

A great way to flesh out your characters and uncover their life story is to fill out a character development worksheet. This way instead of you coming up with questions, you can just answer the ones provided for you. A simple Internet search will provide plenty of character development worksheets. I’ve created my own, which you are welcome to use: character-development-worksheet. Not every question will apply to your character, so only answer the ones that are applicable. 

Sarah, Editor at Aurora House

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