Writing Characters Who Come Alive

3-pack3-021514-tmMost character charts for writers will include things like hair color, eye color, place of birth, occupation, and education. While these things are nice to know, they don’t tell you very much about the character other than surface facts. Here’s a list of some other things you need to think about to make a believable character.

Personality: Is your character an introvert or an extrovert? Is she ruled by her emotions or her intellect? Is he the life of the party or laid back? Personality is the cornerstone of who a person or character is. There are twelve basic personality types you can choose from. Click this link  for a description of each type.

Despair Or Hope Directions On A SignpostWorld View: What is your character’s belief system? This goes beyond their religious affiliation, but that’s a part of it. I’ll give you an example. Sally is an evangelical Christian who goes to church every time the doors are open.

You already have an idea of Sally’s belief system, but you need to dig deeper. Sally believes the Bible is the final authority, but even evangelicals differ. For instance, does Sally believe you should tell the truth even if a person’s life is in danger? Does Sally believe Christians should be actively involved social causes or does she believe we should be more concerned with spiritual matters? Does Sally think it’s alright to have an occasional glass of wine? How does she feel about protecting the environment? If someone is steeped in sin, will Sally befriend and try to help that person or will she distance herself and judge the person? There are many factors that go into our world views. It’s important to understand these when forming a character’s world view.

Character Flaws: What are your character’s flaws? Nobody is perfect. There are many flaws to choose from. But when choosing your character’s flaws, consider his personality and world view. For instance, an extrovert whose emotional may have a bad temper. Or she may make rash decisions. If she has a world view that’s judgmental, she may justify how she treats people. On the other hand, if she believes she’s supposed to help everyone, she may feel guilty when she loses her temper.

Redeeming Qualities: Every protagonist should have at least one redeeming quality, something that keeps the reading liking the person no matter how bad the character acts.

For instance, in my novel, Forks In the Road, JJ grows up to be an outlaw. There’s nothing good about that except he also has a protective friendship with his younger brother. He has put his brother before himself consistently throughout the novel, even risked his life for his brother at times.

This redeeming quality and the fact that he’s polite, even toward his victims, and has gone through a difficult past makes him likable even though we don’t like many of the things he does.

Motivation: Every character has to have a motivation or goal that keeps him moving forward in the story no matter what obstacles come in his way. And there should be obstacles, many of them, to keep the protagonist from reaching his goal. Without motivation, your main characters will seem flat like he’s drifting through the story. Motivation is key to a great character.

Mannerisms: We all have them. Does your character like to tease? Does she giggle when she’s nervous? Does he cross his arms when he’s upset? If you have a certain mannerism that signifies a character, it will make that character come alive. One warning here is don’t overuse that mannerism. A little goes a long way. Before long the reader will see the character doing the mannerism without you mentioning it.

Priority Rubber Stamp Shows Urgent Rush DeliveryPriorities: What is most important to your character? Don’t just list the surface stuff here.

Let’s go back to Sally. God is the most important thing in her life. Her family is second, and her career is third. What if Sally’s husband left her for another woman and isn’t paying child support? Now her career becomes more important because she needs the money to support her children.

But what if her career requires her to work so much she can’t spend any time with her children? Then what happens if she has to always work on Sundays and can’t take her children to church? What if the only babysitter she can find doesn’t believe in God?

You can see where this is going. Priorities are never easy. They sometimes blend, sometimes conflict with each other, and sometimes mess with motivations and world view. Life isn’t easy and neither are the choices we make. Don’t make life easy for your characters.

Backstory: We all have a past that colors what we believe about our world. Sometimes this past will cause us to have a distorted view of the world. What is your character’s backstory? What dark moment in the past causes him to believe a lie? What would it take to change his viewpoint?

You don’t want to reveal this backstory right away, but it’s important that you, the author, know what it is and why your character behaves the way he does. Then when you reveal it later on, it will make sense to the reader.

If you consider each of these factors when creating your characters, your characters will come to life and dictate to you where the story is going and what choices they will make. You will have a character driven story that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat.

Creating Main Characters Readers Care About

37-1013-A0039The best stories have protagonists the reader connects with, characters they care enough about to continue reading to see what happens. A good plot isn’t enough if your reader doesn’t care what happens to the characters you created. Here are some tips for creating protagonists.

The main character should be the hero of his or her story.

The story has to be about your protagonist: what he wants and can’t have, what she needs to overcome, the quest for meaning or greatness. Everybody sees themselves as the heroes of their own stories. That’s why we can relate to the hero of the story we’re reading.

Main characters shouldn’t be perfect.

The greatest way to kill a story is to create a perfect character. If your character always does the right thing, reacts the right way, and makes the right choices, there is no story. When conflict happens, we need to be able to bite our lip hoping the hero makes the right choice but knowing she might not. Otherwise there is no conflict.

Another reason not to have perfect characters is that people are turned off by those who are too perfect. They can’t relate to them. Give your character a weakness. Even Superman had kryptonite to keep him humble.

AChristmasPromise_medIn my Christmas novella, A Christmas Promise, Anna Brunner is the perfect wife, mother, and missionary, but even she has a flaw. She is so fearful and worried that something might happen to her family that her husband skirts the truth to protect her, and her children feel smothered by her. If I’d written the story without that flaw, Anna would have come across as boring and holier than thou.

The main character should grow and change. This is called a character arc. In real life, conflict causes people to make changes in their lives. The same should be true of your story.

The hero of your story is faced with conflict. This will cause him to change and grow as he works through the conflict toward a resolution. The change will sometimes help him overcome flaws and become a better person, but he could also become bitter, angry, or vindictive.

Both occurrences can happen in the same story. He might react the wrong way at first and become bitter, then come to accept the situation and grow into a better person. The change might happen gradually or it could be dramatic and instantaneous. But there should be change.

Soldiers Heart PaperbackI use this technique in my novella, Soldier’s Heart. Noah is home from the Civil War with PTSD. He’s a good man, but the reader never knows for sure if his PTSD will cause him to act in the wrong way despite his good intentions.

Your protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but she has to have a redeeming quality.

There is room in fiction for the anti-hero, the interesting character who might not be likable and who goes against societal mores. These kind of protagonist can work if they are the heroes of their own story.

But whether they change to become better people or not, they have to have a redeeming quality. This redeeming quality is called “save the cat” or “pet the dog”.

The main character could have a strong loyalty to family. He might regularly save people’s lives. She could have a soft spot for children. He might have sacrificed something for a friend. Even if your protagonist is disagreeable, manipulative, immoral, or greedy, this redeeming quality will be the one thing to keep your reader on the protagonist’s side. Even Scrooge had a good eye for business.

One example of this is Reddington on the television series, Blacklist. Reddington is a real bad guy. He kills people and has betrayed his country. He’s sold arms to small countries and is on the FBI’s most wanted list for a good reason. But he’s not completely despicable. He’s a charming man who will do anything for the people he cares about. One of those people is FBI agent Elizabeth Keen. Another is his assistant who he rescued from a slave trader. He is willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for these people.

Whatever that redeeming quality is, it has to be something the character does. Don’t make the mistake of giving your character a bad childhood or a horrific event in life to make him likable unless you show him doing something good despite his terrible background. Everybody has gone through tough times. The reader will tire of the author making excuses for the character because of what happened in the past.

Naming Characters

Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That may be true. But it wouldn’t bring up the same image if it was called a skunk.

When you write your novel, the names you call your characters are important to the overall story and should be considered carefully. Here are a few things you should think about when naming characters.

What image does the name bring to mind? Think about the name Gus, or Ralph, or Fred. Conjure an image in your mind. I’ll bet you didn’t come up with a college graduate with an expensive wardrobe. That’s because these names are associated with a certain type of person. Now think about a man named Perceval. Would you imagine him to be a rough cowboy on the range in the Wild West? Whatever name you decide upon, make sure that name fits the image of your character – unless there’s a reason you want a cowboy named Perceval or a socialite named Gertrude.

Consider Historical Reference. This is important if your story takes place in the past, but even contemporary stories should consider this. For instance, think about women you know named Tammy or Debby. Chances are they’re around fifty years old. That’s because a very popular movie called Tammy and The Bachelor starring Debbie Reynolds came out in 1957. Between 1958 and 1963, these were the most popular girls’ names. In the early 1980’s, most children were named Jonathan and Jennifer because Hart to Hart, a popular TV show of the time, named their main characters, Jonathan and Jennifer Hart. Think about names for your characters would have been used in the time period they were born. If you’re writing about the eighteenth century, here’s a link with a list of common names for that period. If you’re story takes place anytime after 1800, this is a link to the US Census Bureau. It tells what names were popular each year.

Use Ethnic Names. If you have ethnic characters or characters from different nationalities, choose names that go with those nationalities. Make sure the names are easy to pronounce even if they are uncommon to our culture, or your readers will trip over them. Here’s a link to a site ethnic names for different cultures and nationalities.

Choose names with meaning. The meaning of names is important. In the Bible, when someone changed, God would give him a new name. Saul (Jewish name) became Paul (Gentile name). Jacob (trickster) became Israel (prince of God). To give your characters more depth, try finding a name whose meaning goes with their character development. Here’s a link to a site that gives names’ meanings.

Names give identity to people. If you choose carefully, the right names will also give identity to your characters.