We’ve all read those gripping books with characters so real they jump off the pages and come to life. These are the characters we miss when we’re done with the book, like a friend who has moved away. The ones we think about long after the last page, maybe aspire to become like, perhaps compare to real people in our lives we know well.
But as a writer, how do we accomplish this? How do we create characters that stay with people even once the book the is done?
I’ve been back at writing for a little over a year now, working on my debut novel. One of the lessons I’ve learned through the editing process is the importance of differentiating characters’ voices from each other, bringing each of them to life. I by no means consider myself a master of this yet, but a work in progress, and I want to pass on some exercises that worked well for me.
1. Developing a backstory for each character.
Where does the character come from? What’s it like where they live? How did they grow up, and what values do they have as a result? Were there siblings? What is the character’s birth order? What experiences has he/she had that contribute to who they now are, what motivations they have and what they need to be developed and have a true journey in the story? There are many useful tools online that can help you develop all of this so that when you sit down to write the characters in your story, you already know them.
2. What does their voice sound like?
Just like people in real life, there should be a distinction between how the characters sound-the words they use, perhaps their accents, their mannerisms etc. I am continuing to learn how to differentiate, and number one above is helping me do so. But once I know their history, how does that translate into the things they do and say? One practice I’ve begun is to write a series of journal entries about a similar event from each of my character’s perspectives. This has been invaluable in helping me understand how they should both act and talk and helps me translate those two things onto the pages of what I’m writing.
3. Where do you want them to be by the end of the book?
If you’re a plotter, you probably know the answer to this question. I, for better or worse, am still trying to be, but my default is relentless pantsing. So, when I’ve started to write, I have a vague idea, but the characters kind of find their way as I find mine through the story and who knows where they will end up. That hasn’t been super helpful or productive and in fact impedes my productivity because I end up having to rewrite scenes. And hey, we’re all busy, right? I want to be the best steward of my time I can. So, I spend some mental energy thinking about how I want this character to change as a result of the story and who he/she will be by the end of it. Then, I jot it down before I begin to write the scene. If we know where we’re going, the road is a lot easier to travel.
For me, these are all recent revelations in my own journey to hone the craft, but by using them I believe my characters are stronger and more vibrant as a result.
So, how about you? How do you bring your characters to life?