We’ve all read books about characters we just couldn’t care about. And we’ve read books whose characters became a part of our lives. Characters whose problems became our problems. Characters we talk about as if they were our dearest friends.
How do you, as a writer, make sure your characters fall into that later camp? Here are two techniques you can try:
All the Things You’ll Remember When They’re Gone
Think about someone you haven’t seen in a long time, or a loved one you’ve lost. Often times the things you loved about that person most were his or her mannerisms. The little things that made that person THAT PERSON and no one else. A phrase they always used. A movement they always made. A habit you could count on.
Spend some time remembering someone you haven’t seen in a long time or someone you’ve lost. Make a list of his or her mannerisms that you loved and hated. Think about how these traits made that person completely unique. Then take it a step further and try to describe how one or two of those mannerisms made you feel.
Now spend some time thinking about one of your characters. What are his or her mannerisms? If you don’t know off the top of your head, try an exercise I do all the time: Slip into your character’s skin. You may have to really work your imagination, but pretend for a moment that your body is your character’s body. Sit like he sits, stand like he stands, walk like he walks. From there, try having him make a conversation with another character.
You may be surprised what happens. From this exercise, I learned that one of my characters rubs the sweat off his palms onto his pants legs when he’s tense – whether or not his palms are sweaty. Another one of my characters rakes his hands through his hair and shakes it like a lion’s mane when he’s in a light mood. Another one subconsciously touches the old bullet wound in his leg when he’s remembering the past.
The Emotional Cost of Living
Life is hard on everyone. We all carry scars. Frequently, we’re not aware how these scars affect our daily living – but they do. Hugely. Our scars taint the way we see the world and move through it. Most importantly, they affect our relationships. A child who could never make his parents proud, however hard he tried, may be an over-achiever as an adult, or never try anything at all. A woman who’s been through two divorces may be terrified of falling in love and run from future dates, or be terrified of being alone and fall into a relationship too quickly.
If you don’t know what toll life has cost your character, sit down to review her past. Ask whether any of her experiences are likely to have been emotionally hard on her, and what the consequences may have been. One of my characters grew up in foster care, where she changed homes every few years. She learned that “family” are people who abandon you, and consequently refuses to trust anyone. Another character was proud to see his son grow up to become an outstanding member of the community – only to watch him entangled in a violent crime that put him on the run from the law. My character figured, if you can’t know what your own son is capable of, how can you say you know anyone?
As you’re exploring the scars in your characters’ pasts, keep in mind that there are real people out there who have been through what your character is going through. Writing from pure imagination is a fine thing, but you’d be surprised how certain negative influences can affect the mind and emotions. Do a google search on your topic for articles, websites, organizations, and support groups. Read up on real people who have walked that path. Or if you’re not sure what scars are in your character’s past, try browsing the self-help aisles at the bookstore. See if something matches your character’s history.
Whatever you do, avoid throwing catastrophic events at your character and having them bulldoze their way through them as if these events had no emotional toll. Most life-shaking circumstances have far-reaching consequences – and exploring those in your novel will bring your characters to life and make them more relatable to your readers.
If you can give your character unique mannerisms and find their unique struggle, you’ll have gone far in creating a character that lives and breathes.
What techniques do you use to bring your characters to life?