This is a guest article by Alex Limberg. If you want to write a guest article of your own be sure to read the guest article guidelines.
Some writers claim they know their characters even better than their spouses. It’s great when your spouse doesn’t just exist on paper, and even greater when you can create real, three-dimensional characters. The more real your character seems, the more your audience will root for him. Your readers will be more involved in the story emotionally and live with him through his fears and joys. This makes for a much more rewarding reading experience.
This post will show you how to make your characters come alive. Also, because it’s easy to overlook when your figures lack depth, you can download a free goodie below the post to help you discover any problems with your characters and pretty much any other aspect of your story (it uses test questions).
1. Give your character features that go well with each other
If your character is tough, most things about her are tough. If he is primitive, most things about him are primitive. You have probably never seen a very simple person analyzing a single thought for hours. If she is a very direct person, she probably doesn’t lie a lot. A character profile has to be a complete package that makes sense.
When you assign traits to your character, show them as much as possible, instead of telling them. For example, don’t say that your character is friendly, instead show him putting a smile on everybody’s face and helping an old lady across the street.
Everything has to fit together, because you want your world and your characters to feel realistic. On some level, the reader should recognize his own world in the one you paint for him. Vivid description will help your reader feel like he is right there with you in your story.
2. Show your character’s contrasting side
This point seems to contradict the previous one above. But the truth is, all of us humans have several sides to our personalities. The good and the bad, the majestic and the pathetic, it all comes together in us – that’s what it’s like to be human. If you can demonstrate that your character has two conflicting sides, that will give him that much more depth.
What seemingly contradicts a person’s personality might make a lot of sense on a deeper psychological level, when you connect the contradictory behavior to other parts of his personality. Take a successful guy who is very wealthy and very stingy. He carefully guards his wealth from everyone, but then again he passionately donates to charity. How can these traits fit together?
Answer: It could be that he is donating to give some meaning to his life. So far, he has dedicated his entire life to money, wealth and himself; now he wants to feel that something he does matters. Can you see how one part of somebody’s personality can be the root for or effect of another one? This is exactly what gives us that 3D feeling: You can take a look at this man from many angles, he comes in shades of grey and not just in black and white.
3. Use dialogue to show the character is unique
We are special snowflakes, all of us. When we are speaking is when we express our personalities most clearly and most explicitly. That’s why your characters can show most directly what they are about in their dialogue – they are talking directly to your reader and without you, the author, in between as a filter. Dialogue is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate their personality.
Your characters don’t only show their personalities by what they are saying, but also by how they are saying it: Consider the vocabulary they use, their rhythm of speech, how complex their sentences are, if they are imaginative (figures of speech, etc…), and so on.
Here is a simple test for your dialogue: Is your reader able to distinguish between your characters just by the phrases they are saying, without seeing any dialogue tags? You know you have made your characters individual when each of them has their own voice.
4. Steal from people you know in real life
Don’t steal stuff they will miss, but borrow their characters as role models.
Look at your world-building in a practical way: You can model your figures best after people you have known really well for many years in the real world. Your character is a very bold guy? For sure you know somebody who doesn’t shy away from collecting five free samples at once or “accidentally” taking the hotel towel with him when he checks out. What would that real life person think in the scene you are writing, how would they act and what would they say?
Some writers have used their husbands, siblings or parents in a dozen different books, in a dozen different ways. Most of your characters will not be exactly as their real life prototypes, because you are writing fiction and not a biography. Instead, they will be rather hybrids of people you know; for example, as happy as your sister and as suspicious as your best friend.
So this is it: If you put all those little tricks to use, you might feel as if your character was physically reaching out of the page to grab you – or to congratulate you. If you feel like that, your reader will as well.
Have your say
Now it’s your turn: What’s your best trick to make your characters come alive? Can you let us know your secret? Go ahead and comment below!
Alex Limberg is the founder of ‘Ride the Pen’, a creative writing blog dissecting famous writers (works, not bodies); his blog includes detailed writing prompts. Check how three-dimensional your characters are with his free e-book (download here) about ‘44 Key Questions’ to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter in a Hamburg advertising agency and with camera and lighting in the movie business. He has also lived in Los Angeles and Madrid.