Bringing Characters to Life

 A story without people is not a story. I’m not sure what it is but it’s not a story.

You can have a great plot and beautiful settings, but if your characters are not alive, you just have words on a page.

There are numerous tools available to help us create characters. Meyer-Briggs, Gary writer's block 2Chapman’s Five Love Languages, character interview forms, character description sheets, family history templates, etc. They all have some value in identifying your characters.

I believe your character doesn’t come alive until he or she is in the story, interacting with other characters, striving to achieve goals. This striving creates conflict. This conflict brings both your character and your story alive.

When your character comes to life in the story, be prepared for most of the preliminary work to go out the window. And be prepared, if you’re an outliner, for your carefully-crafted story to go in new directions. The story, the conflicts, the setbacks, will change your character and reveal more of what’s beneath her surface.

Believable characters have dark secrets, hidden ambitions, fears, dreams, hopes, and desires. In my current work, I didn’t know my heroine was claustrophobic until it came out in a scene. None of my prep work revealed this. Why? Because it wasn’t important in the prep work. It wasn’t until I had her in a scene, in action, that the fear of being closed in manifested itself. Her fear of heights wasn’t revealed until she had to climb a tree to escape a hungry tiger.

People have needs for relationship, significance, and security. These need to be revealed in the story.

Randy Ingermanson teaches that to create a believable character, try to give her at least two core values. And somewhere in the story, have them conflict. In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, Michael Archer is the protagonist. His core values are: One, nothing is more important than keeping his word; and, two, nothing is more important than protecting human life. At the climax, these values conflict. To keep his promise to a condemned man, Michael faces having to kill someone.

James Scott Bell, in Conflict & Suspense, suggests giving your character a yearning, something they want but don’t have, “something without which a person feels life will be incomplete.” It can be something the hero brings into the story so he already has trouble when the story opens. This yearning will give him a store of actions that are unpredictable, creating potential conflict in every scene, and creating interest in the reader from the outset.

Businessman with Cell Phone JumpingThe more we let our characters express and reveal themselves in the story, the more vibrant, complex, and fascinating they will be, and the more they will keep the reader hooked and turning pages.

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About henrymclaughlin

Henry McLaughlin’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel Award. He brings a love of history and a background of social services and ministry into his writing. Henry enjoys working with other writers to sharpen his craft and to teach, coach and mentor. Besides writing, he also enjoys reading and traveling. Born in Rhode Island, he now lives in Saginaw, Texas, with his wife of forty-three years. Four of their five children and grandson are scattered across New England, New Jersey, and Missouri. Their eldest is in heaven. WordServe client since 2011 Member: ACFW, CWG, NTCW (North Texas Christian Writers) Website: www.henrymclaughlin.org

13 thoughts on “Bringing Characters to Life

    • You’re welcome, Heather. When characters show me more of themselves in action and dialogue, it’s like learning something new about a close friend.

  1. Good point about giving the main character two core values and having them conflict. That technique brings out so much tension and emotion. Another great post, Henry.

    • Thanks, Tina. It’s like Donald Maass suggests: think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and put in the book.

  2. “I don’t believe a character comes to life until he or she is in the story.” What a great truth.

    One of the fun things about writing stories, is when the details are revealed to you, the writer, as the plot thickens. Your post is both encouraging and comforting.

  3. Thank you, Henry. As someone at the very start of a journey into fiction, I appreciate your clarity here. You make “bringing characters to life” sound do-able. Not easy, but do-able.
    And me too, Heather. This goes into the file!

    • You’re starting an amazing and wonderful journey. Bringing characters to life is “do-able.” Sometimes the challenge is in trusting you characters enough to let them loose and see where they lead. God’s blessing and favor on you as you step out in your writing.

  4. Thank you for sharing these great insights on creating believable characters, Henry. Prep work is great for getting to know your character, but I agree, they have to be in the story, in the action before they can come to life. Awesome post!

    • Developing characters is certainly something we can explore more deeply.

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