I recently had some issues with a character that just would not breathe. This character has been on the edge of real for months, but nothing I did made them real. I felt like a stage manager, carefully placing actors on the stage and whispering their lines to them from behind a curtain.
It wasn’t working.
Turns out it wasn’t one method, one thing, that ended up doing the trick. I had to explore further without burning out. So here’s a list of some of the things I found to breathe life into your characters.
Techniques to Bring Them To Life
1. Create your MC’s normal.
When you start your book, your immediate thought is usually about the disruption you’re about to write. We writers love our Inciting Incidents. It’s one of the first things that pop into my head when I get a story idea. The problem with that is that I have no idea what exactly I’m disrupting. So start by asking some questions about your MC’s life before an author pranced in and made it hell.
What are they up to? Do they have a job? What do they do at work? What problems do they have to deal with? A mean neighbor? An overbearing parent? A nasty co-worker?
2. A Day in the Life Of ________
This is another way to determine their normal before the Inciting Incident. How do they wake up? Is there a clock that blares at them until they finally out? Do they sleep in a bed? Do they slip into slippers? Or did they wake up to the silence of the morning with the sun in their eyes? Do they rise before the sun? How do they get to work? Do they open the door left-handed or right-handed?
We all have our routines. Personally, I walk in the door and greet the dogs, immediately walk into my office and take off my jacket and shoes. First thing. What does your MC do when they get home? Toss keys onto a table? Hang them on the wall? Shuffle into the kitchen? Immediately flop onto the couch? Check the mail? Find the routines they have and see if you can’t solve it backwards. Why do they do that? Do they hang the keys on the wall because they can’t stand mess? Why can’t they stand mess?
4. What’s their dream? Their hope?
This is easily one of the most thorough methods I’ve used. The rest came pretty quickly after this. People have dreams and hopes. Your character is no different. You have a plan, even a generic one, about the steps you will take to get where you want to be. Want to be an author? Ok, you need to do x, y, and z.
If your character wants to be a dancer, then you better believe they’ve been dancing since they could walk. They’ve got dancer’s feet (don’t look it up guys, please don’t) and are probably graceful. If their hope is just to design the perfect home, then you better have a plan for that. Now where are they at in their plan? Work it backwards. If our dancer is currently attending a prestigious school and having trouble, what led her to have trouble? Maybe she had a bad sprain and is working through it.
How did the sprain happen? (this is a great opportunity to give background information unrelated to our dream) Maybe she sprained it trying to catch the train and got caught. Maybe she was out with friends and suddenly a big, terrible, bad thing happens. Like a car explodes, and she’s caught in the crowd running away. Man, this method could lead anywhere.
So if you’re stuck on your characters and need a little help, don’t always go straight for the questionnaires. It’s hard to answer those naturally when our habits are related to our pasts. They can become clinical quickly and this will inevitably leave you frustrated, staring at an empty page with a flat character. (We know how I feel about that)
Be Sherlock. Become a detective. Follow the strand of story backwards one question at a time. Leave a comment if you try any of these and let me know how it went.
Keep writing, Lovelies