Breathe Life Into Your Fictional Characters
by Leih Mikulic
Name your favorite fictional character. It’s a common question that you’d find unsurprising in most settings. Our favorite characters are as real to us as our own family and friends. Any reference to Hermione Granger immediately makes me recall the smell of freshly mowed grass as I spent most of my childhood summers reading the Harry Potter series outdoors. I remember looking at Hermione’s actions to see how to use my own voice in school. While her presence comforted 12 year-old me, albeit in hearts and minds, she doesn’t exist. What brings certain characters to life for their readers and how do we create them for our own stories? While there is no magic wand to wave and create the perfect character that your readers will connect with, consider these things when breathing life into your writing.
Let’s Get Physical… and Philosophical
For your readers to imagine your characters, they need to see them on the page. Make a list of each character’s physical characteristics such as hair color, face shape, size. Do a head-to-toe scan of every single one. Think of tiny details that will help the reader create a picture from their mind’s eye. If it’s difficult to think it all up on your own, draw from your life and experiences. Take a nose from your favorite teacher, a distinct smile from a friend, the stature of a stranger you commute with every day. The world around us can inspire any character. Even if your character isn’t human and hasn’t every existed before, think of the tiniest physical details. Your main character isn’t just a green, two-headed alien. He is a five foot five inches, pudgy, green-skinned being with three eyelashes for every eye on his two hairless heads.
Once you’ve tackled physical descriptors, move onto the mental and emotional makeup of your characters. Yes, it’s a lot of work to think about all of the minuscule details of why your characters do what they do but you’ll have a better understanding of how they act throughout your story. As with all humans, your characters have a mental load they carry from before the story starts. They’ve had experiences and memories that shape who they are now. They also don’t disappear when the story is finished. Think about their future plans. Where will your characters want to be in five years, in ten? Will they be there or will life have directed them down another path?
Interesting People Aren’t Perfect People
Our characters should grip the reader and lead them through the actions of the story. The trouble is you always need some trouble. ’Good people’ don’t make the most interesting characters because they aren’t relatable. A cardboard cut-out of the perfect mother doesn’t resonate with readers as much as a mother who although she loves her children with all her heart and works her ass off to protect them and care for them still makes mistakes. That’s the mother that we know and can care about because our own mothers weren’t perfect. As much as they may have tried to be their best selves for their kids, no real person is flawless and the same should be said for the characters we write. Relatable characters make mistakes, try and fail, get upset, confused, worn down, elated about the wrong idea, wrong person. They fall in love, fall out, recognize their flaws or choose not to see them at all. They can be messy or too logical, forget promises, change their mind, grow into someone completely different or at least try to be. Hermione wasn’t close to the perfect character. She wasn’t always warm and friendly and even preferred books to people. She went to parties with the wrong guy to make someone else jealous. While she had many wonderful qualities, she wasn’t a cookie-cutter girl and she made mistakes. So too should your characters be relatable, interesting and far from perfect.
Think about your characters and note their strengths and weaknesses. Consider how their strengths could turn into weaknesses and vice versa. Wonder how your character could grow, change, adapt, fall down and try again. To make your characters as real as possible, take a long, deep look into yourself and your complexities. Note the differences between who you think you are, who you really are and who you would like to become. The essence of the human experience is in the cracks between these nuances and that’s a foundation for dynamic characters.