Bringing Your Characters to Life

Meeting new and interesting people is one of the great pleasures of reading—and writing—fiction. Our favorite characters take on lives of their own. In a novel, when we have more time to spend with them, they come to seem like friends. One mark of a successful book is the reluctance of readers to part company with characters we've grown fond of.

In a short story, you don't have sufficient space to let your readers establish long-term relationships with your characters. Yet the sense that the characters are real people, that they are truly alive if only in some alternate universe, adds immeasurably to our willingness to become involved in the story and to let it affect us in the way you intended. If we believe in your characters, we will believe in the rest of the story. If the characters strike us as wooden figures, or wind-up toys, or chess pieces you're pushing around on a board, we will resist getting involved; we may even quit reading.

Some characters are so vividly drawn that they walk out of their stories and into the popular imagination, becoming cultural archetypes. Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens' miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, and James Thurber's daydreaming Walter Mitty are well known to people who have never read the stories in which they appeared.

To create characters who become real, you must know them intimately. The better you know them, the easier it will be for you to bring them to life for the reader. You won't put everything you know on the page; there's not room for that, nor is there any need. But when you know exactly who they are, what they think, how they feel, how they act and react, you can be confident that what does appear on the page is right. Your characters will help you tell the story in the strongest, most effective way.

Getting to know them isn't an instantaneous process. Achieving intimate knowledge of any new acquaintance takes time, effort, and a willingness on your part to be open.

Some writers write biographical sketches of their characters before they begin a story. Others make charts to keep track of pertinent details. A sample of such a chart appears on page 41.

If you'd like to try this system, you can use it as is or let it inspire a more helpful one of your own.

Some writers, though, find it hard to get to know a character in advance in this way. We need to see them walking around in the story, flexing their muscles. We need to hear them speak and watch them respond to what other characters say and do. For me, going through this get-acquainted process is one of the main purposes of a first draft.

When my novel A Relative Strangerwas in the planning stage, I wrote extensive biographical notes for only one character, a private investigator named O'Meara whom I expected to play a key role in the book. I could see the man clearly—tall, lanky, with shaggy brown hair that glinted reddish in the sun. He was a law school dropout who lived in San Francisco, and both of these facts dismayed his family, ambitious Texas politicians who had had far different plans for him. When I began writing, I knew O'Meara much better than any other character in the book.

There was only one problem: When I placed him in the story, he folded his arms and refused to perform. By the time I finished the first draft, he appeared in only a single scene. The most obvious alternatives were to shoehorn him into scenes he didn't belong in or to get rid of him.

My solution? I turned O'Meara into an Irish setter. He was clearly happier to be a dog. Once I made the switch, the second draft proceeded much more smoothly. O'Meara came to life at last, wagging his tail, and settled comfortably into the story. Perhaps the other O'Meara, the man I thought I knew so well, will find a place in another story.

You'll need to experiment to discover how and when your characters come alive for you. You may find that it changes from story to story, and from character to character.

Whether your characters have become old friends by the time you launch into your first draft or still are strangers, here are five techniques that will help you achieve an intimate acquaintance with them and bring them to life for your readers.

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