Bringing your Characters to Life

“It is not plot, but character that makes your story glisten.” Fiction is Folks, by Robert Newton Peck

In my office I have, over the last 28 years of writing, collected nearly 100 books on writing. They range from the essentials of learning style (Strunk and White) to how to write a novel to writing genre fiction and nonfiction, as well as writing prompts and practices. Here and there I have a Writer’s Market or two.

Most of these books tell me how to write, throwing in something on characterization. I have one book that has a whole list of questions to answer for a Character Profile. I have another book that says you only need three or four questions. Eventually I compiled a list of 84 questions for a character profile. Once I complete one, I was exhausted — and I still had to do this
again five more times for my main and secondary characters. Who was I kidding?

One of the best books I’ve ever read is Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck, written in 1983. It tells how to create unforgettable
characters. I wish I could write you a moving synopsis on it, but what I got from it then and still do today is this:

Make Your Characters REAL.

One of the first things I realized is that the people who populate my stories are not two-dimensional characters. Once they come onto the stage of my story they often do surprising things. They walk differently than I imagined; they have accents I didn’t intend; they fall in or out of love with the wrong characters. And where they got those clothes … obviously a different modiste than I sent them to!

They are, in short, real people. They named themselves my Paper People. I’ve written enough stories, both short and long, for there to be quite a menagerie of Paper People.

“Who are you calling a menagerie? We ain’t no menagerie. Don’t you be callin’ us birds, no matter how pretty our feathers, er, dresses. We’s people, real, live, and squawking — um, talking. You need to hurry up with that pen or we be long gone!”

I apologize. Not a menagerie, then. But a great large group of people.

You should see them. They come from everywhere, from every era (even the future). They are smart, funny, talented, industrious, menacing, heroes and cowards. They are just like all of us, and when they get together they end up talking about me and how I tend to get things wrong, how if I would just ask them they would tell me where the story is going to go.  Sometimes I think they despair of me.

The one you just met is a parlour maid who lives and works in Hetty Atwater’s house in wealthy Manhattan in 1888. She is 17, strong, healthy, pretty with dark hair and big blue eyes, and loves fashion. She took (borrowed) a clean feather duster to wear as a bustle. The Atwater house tends to go through a lot of feather dusters. Our maid is justifiably proud of her job.  She’s the only one who landed amongst the “airistocratics”; her sisters are all domestic help in middle-class homes. She gets one day off a week to go home in lower Manhattan and the money she makes helps keep a roof over her parents and younger siblings’ heads and food in their bellies. She can read some, and write a little and has a burning desire for more book learning.  This girl has plans and dreams and scheme. She fascinates me.

And the book isn’t even about her.

But it could be. Any or all of my people could be lead characters in my books, it just depends on the perspective. In my first book I had Harbonah, head eunuch of King Xerxes who became much bigger than his role because of personal idiosyncracies. His personality came through — cranky, loving, funny, fearful, loyal, and proud. Whenever he walked on to a page he sort of took over. He helped make the book whole and solid. There were some characters I never did get a full handle on and I think they suffered for it.

So, my first rule for building life into your characters (and therefore your story) is:

 Treat your characters as people. Because they are.  Meredith Rose Ashe blogged about interviewing her people. (Go visit her Velvet Skies blog for more of her technique) I’ve done it too, with mine, but I think she gets better responses from her people. I tend to follow my people around and record what they are doing. It’s only when they bump me into a wall or toss me off a parapet that I stop and say, “Really?”

“No, we’re just messing with you.”

“Well, thanks. Now I have to go back and tear out five pages of carefully recorded material.”

“Not all of it is bad, honest. I like my dress and that bit with the Duke was brilliant. I mean, he smiled at me. Maybe we can still
use it. I promise I’ll do it right this time.”


Of course not everyone has a reason for being in the story. My second rule for writing people in my story is:

Why are they there? If they don’t have a good reason for being in the story, cut them. I have a whole marvelous chapter in my
Energy Weavers book (science fiction) about an alien Fishman named Ysbail. I wrote this chapter during one of my long, interminable hospital stays last year. He’s fabulous and both my daughter and I love him.

But he doesn’t belong, no matter how wonderful he is. The story took a different turn and he just doesn’t fit anymore. I could cut him out and lose him, but I won’t. He’ll likely get a short story of his own (or he may come in later in the series). I love his culture, his fears, his strength. He’s a brilliant character, just not right here.

Likewise I have three children in the plot, which gives the story lightness and humour. But again, they don’t work within the current storyline, so they need to go. It’s going to mean a bit of rewriting, but in the end, they don’t have a good reason for being there. Nante doesn’t suffer by not having the children and seems freer than worrying about her kids while she’s navigating a ship from planet to planet. Sorry kids. Maybe they will come in somewhere else in some other form.

I never completely dump any of my people. The well-formed ones who get cut often get stuck in a file with notes on age, era, date and time. The more nebulous people, the ones that feel like two-dimensional characters, get placed in another file for more work.

To make my people real I use a few questions:

Who are they

What do they want? What is important to them and will it work within my story?

Where do they come from and Where are they going?

Why are they in this story?

How can I help them achieve their aims?

People bring life to the landscapes of our writing. We can write fabulous forest, meadows, cityscapes, oceans, whatever we want, but without birds twittering, dogs barking, airships swooping or people working, shopping, walking down the sidewalk or populating a tree village, you only have landscape, flat and unemotional, like pretty picture postcards.

So my challenge is this: Write unforgettable people onto your pages and watch … just watch. I wish you many great stories, terrific characters — excuse me, people — and no walls in your way or parapets to tumble off.


2 thoughts on “Bringing your Characters to Life

  1. Dear Deb, your blog is wonderful, insightful and absolutely correct ! I remember reading a Stephen King comment that basically said if your characters don’t have dimension, if they don’t have real lives where you feel their pain, joy, and even their idiosyncrasies, then you’re short changing your readers. Your spot on! P.S Thank you so much for your comment on my website, I’m appreciative & in your debt,
    Samantha C Ross

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