How to Make Your Characters Alive

For all people out there trying to be writers, the first thing you probably realize when you start trying to write fiction is that it can be really easy to be bad. Really easy, and that probably sounds incredibly obvious which it is, but the problem is that we don’t really know what it is we have to do to stop being bad, which is of course, what we want.

One of the most important aspects of a book yet one of the most difficult parts to conjure is creating characters that actually seem like they would exist in the real world, while at the same time putting them in situations interesting enough for readers to pay attention. The problem is that when you’re writing fantasy, it’s so easy to get lost in your world and shift the characters from the regular citizens they started as to cartoons filled with cliche after cliche.

And that’s something you really don’t want. You don’t want characters the readers won’t believe, characters that are nothing more than characters. You want people. You want people that you can see would fit as easily in our world as they do in their world (unless the plot of the book would completely disallow it). But how do you construct real people with real consistent personalities and attitudes, with their own inner desires and fears, with backgrounds that peak out in between the lives even when they’re not supposed to, but just because your hands felt like writing it? How do you make people out of words?

Go to any fan fiction or roleplaying site and the people there will answer this question as soon as you ask it. They’ll say that you have to build a background for your character, an outline. Completely make his history, his age, his personality, his hopes and dreams, his fears, his favorite color and his favorite food, and probably even his birthmarks (because most roleplayers are strange like that). And it makes sense — what easier way to understand your character than by painting him in, right?

But I don’t agree. I hate that method, because it takes away the entire creative process and turns it into a formula, and when everything we do is formulaic and upfront, what makes us different from computers and programs? Why are we turning the creative process into something a computer would do? It makes sense, yes, but will it give you the best results? I don’t think so. When computers already beat us at everything else our mind can do, why are we taking the only thing they’re incapable of, creativity, and turning it into an equation?

Inspiration doesn’t happen when you force it, at least, upfront. It doesn’t happen when you ask for it on a blank sheet of paper and expect it to just come out. Asking for it is as mundane and silly as asking for the wind to come to you. But that’s not to say that inspiration is as uncontrollable as wind, they’re actually very different, and in a good way, too. Inspiration is a very tricky thing — most people will tell you “Oh, I’m not feeling inspired today”, but writers know that’s bullshit. If you wait for inspiration to come, then you’ll never finish what you’re working on. Inspiration is a step by step process. When you open your computer/laptop/notebook for those of you living in the 20th century and start writing, inspiration will drip out of your fingers little by little like a slow bottle of ketchup. It’ll never explode out — yea, maybe a song will help you, but a song’s not going to write your whole book. The song’s just going to get you started, but in the end, you’re the one who inspires yourself.

So what does this have to do with making characters? Everything. When you sit down to write an outline of a character (and even the plot), you ruin the artistic and creative process. Instead of letting the ketchup slowly drip out of the bottle, you’re essentially smashing the ketchup bottle against the ground and hoping that the explosion of ketchup makes sense. Don’t do that.

I mean, think of yourself, think of every single person you know. These are real people. Were your personalities built from the top down? Did you just suddenly appear one day, and like a sketch artist with a pencil, aspects of your character were drawn in? Of course not. So why are we treating fictional characters this way?

If you want your fictional characters to seem like real people, then treat them like real people. Start from their heart, and work your way from there. Start from what you want, the simplest idea and the simplest version of your premise, write it down and see what happens. Because when you try to be creative, you screw up. You end up with characters who are like DnD fantasy heroes because in the outline you struggled to make him interesting, and while some people may enjoy that, I know I don’t. I’m the type of guy who prefers the superhero movies with the slow but detailed character development, and not just “hey look, I’m a strong guy pow pow explosions Michael Bay!” because that’s lazy.

Why’s it lazy? Because the basic idea of making an outline shows an unwillingness to lash out into other avenues of thought. Writing down who your character is right from the start shows that you’re already going the wrong way. You’re limiting yourself, why? Let your character’s explore, let them guide you and let them tell you what is going to happen and what they’re going to do. You have to realize that you’re NEVER going to write a real character in an outline, because it’s not their basic traits that make them real. It gives them a place to stand, but that’s not what makes them real. What makes them real is plasticity. What makes them real is how they interact with the events that occur to them and how they change and grow as people. Because this is what readers want. Readers want to watch their favorite characters grow, just as we have, and succeed.

If you’ve read this far, then you might be confused as to how I expect you to make characters. Just try it, please, and you’ll never regret it. Sit down and start writing your story with the most basic idea in mind, and as you type, as you imagine and as you think, your mind will open up more doors that you couldn’t ever possibly unlock when you’re just writing an outline. I guess at this point I’m talking as much about the plot as I am about the character, and it’s true. And if you find out half way through your outline-less book that you’ve just thought of a much more interesting plot line? Then do it. Change whatever needs changing, edit whatever needs editing, and work with it.

Why? Because that’s the creative process, and that’s what makes our minds better than a computer’s. It’s what makes us human.

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4 thoughts on “How to Make Your Characters Alive

  1. I read your first chapter and all your blog posts and I gotta say, as a lifelong fantasy/sci-fi fan, I have really high hopes for your book. Your talk of character development and the importance of being able to relate to characters echoes my own thoughts on the matter so closely that it’s like reading my own mind. The first chapter had an excellent hook, and even after the relatively small piece of your work that I’ve read, I find myself hungry for more. Can’t wait to see what you’re going to put out. Good luck, and keep writing.

    • Thanks, I appreciate it. Hopefully my talk isn’t just talk and what I want actually reflects between the covers (if it ever gets published). It’s always great to get compliments though, you don’t know how much it helps.

  2. Pingback: How do you create your characters? « Look! a NaNoWriMo forum!!

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