Breathing Life into Characters
Giving life to a character is one of the most rewarding parts of being a writer. It is also one of the most difficult. Too many times in fiction we witness the “cardboard” or one-dimensional character. Real characters, those we can visualize and root for and love, aren’t created with the snap of a finger. Instead, they develop over time, over many hours spent together. Surely, writing is a spiritual endeavor. The closest any of us will ever mimic God is by our desire to create another human. But once we do, we find out something God discovered years ago: once you breathe life into a being, he takes on a life of his own.
I like to think of the development of characters as being a process, a life cycle, instead of a moment of genius creation. My most requested workshop is “The Life Cycle of a Character,” which breaks getting to know a character into several phases.
CONCEPTION is the initial spark, the idea that originally causes us to want to create this character. Sometimes it is generated by plot — we know a story we want to tell and we need a character to tell it by. Sometimes we see a setting — a country porch with a dilapidated swing or an isolated island — which makes us wonder what kind of person would live there. Sometimes we run across a photograph that sparks our imagination and we create personality to go with the physical features. Or sometimes we see a possession — an antique spinning wheel or an outrageously expensive emerald ring — and wonder the type of person who would own such a thing. Whatever the cause, a character is conceived by an idea.
During the conception phase, we need to start assigning characteristics (knowing that once our character takes on a life of his own, he may change any of our assumptions about him). But, to get us started, we still go through the paces. You may find it helpful to use a Character Trait Chart to assign physical description and background information. Regardless, we need to know basic facts about the person: Name? Age? Sex? Marital Status? Occupation/Social Class? Physical Description? How does he feel about himself? Who are his friends? How intelligent or educated is he? What does he sound like? Smell like? What is the very first thing you notice about this character? And on and on.
BIRTH is when we pick up that limp character that we assigned physical attributes and psychological traits to, hold him in our arms, and breathe the breath of life into him from our very own souls. It is also the turning point — his actual birth — and we cease having absolute control over him.
The first breath of life is when our character has a goal or “character statement.” What, more than anything else in the world, does this character want? Some examples from my characters are:
To become wealthy so the love of my life will return my love.
To have fun.
To be the best teacher I can possibly be and to give my students the desire to continue their education.
To keep my family together.
To break into the Rock ‘n Roll charts and become a rock star.
To know and do God’s will.
As you can see, a character’s goal can be as deep or as vapid as the individual. Note that for some characters, this statement may be a life goal, but for others, it may change as the character matures. Regardless, this is what motivates our character, and we must understand this motivation if we are to continue to add depth to his personality.
Part of a character’s birth is the “layering” of personality traits. I have found that a good book of the Zodiac that includes both star signs and moon signs (such as Complete Book of the Zodiac ) is a “cheap” way to add dimension to a character. Also, I search psychology books for complementary traits. The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits (Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.) is excellent for this, suggesting, for example, that alcoholics often possess irrational fears and suspicions or that a criminal skyjacker often has a religious mother who made him her confidant, that bed wetters are often aggressive and have difficulty adapting to new situations. These are the types of traits that add dimension to our characters.
ADOLESCENCE is when our character begins interacting with his environment. How does the setting of the story affect him? What is going to happen to him, and how will he react to what happens to him? What conflict or fatal flaw will prevent him from achieving his goal? How will he overcome this conflict or flaw? How will he grow?
MATURITY is the final fleshing-out of a character. We now add body language (be sure to study a good body language text to understand how posture, facial expressions and mannerisms affect the way we are received by others) and dialogue to our character. We need to give him a distinctive voice, not just externally, but the way he will think in internal dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, we need to understand his emotional makeup. To fully understand our character, we need to mentally try him out in several emotional scenes so that we can know how he will react.
DEATH. Great characters never die. Never.
So — giving life to a character is much like being a parent. We do the best we can for our characters, give them years of our lives, our love and understanding, but the day comes when they rebel and say, “Enough. Let me be me,” and we must allow them to live their own lives. And that is when we’ve truly given life.