This Business of Writing

How to Bring Characters to Life

In The Craft of Writing on December 4, 2009 at 9:09 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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As any fiction writer will tell you, vivid characters are necessary to any successful novel. It may surprise you to know the method you use to bring your character to life can be as important as the character himself. With that in mind, let’s consider some of the different ways you might develop the characters in your novel.

One way you can add depth to a character is to summarize. This technique has the distinct advantage of simplicity. You basically give your reader a list of characteristics in narrative form. If you wish to advance your character in this fashion, don’t just give the reader a physical description. You should also use this time to bring his conflict to the fore. Those who use this technique typically do so early in their story. The problem with this methodology? The author tends to tell about the character, rather than show. (How many times have we heard the maxim writers are to show and not tell?)

Another popular method writers use to portray a character is to show an unusual action or habit. You might mention a young girl’s habit of tucking her hair behind her ear whenever she feels nervous around men. When your reader sees her tucking her hair later in the book, they understand what this character is feeling.

You can always have your character give a self-portrait. Fyodor Dostoyevski used this technique in “Notes From Underground.”

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an ugly man. I believe my liver is diseased.”

The advantage of this methodology is the reader can also even envision the character’s personality by the words he uses and the way he uses them. The disadvantages can be significant as it might not carry enough dramatic weight to propel the story.

You can always use a person’s appearance to show their personality. We’ve all heard the old saw that says, “Image is everything.” Your reader can deduce your character’s traits by the way their groom themselves and their physical traits. The reader can also surmise the core conflict from a description if you use this technique with care. For example, is his mustache shabby or cropped? It is wide and waxed or does it sit low on the upper lip? What if one female character glopped on make-up while another wore none? What type of person do these various personality traits demonstrate? Can you see different personalities exhibited by these descriptions?

What I like about this type of characterization is their appearance may be deceiving. (Ah, love those Shapeshifters!)

You can bring your character to life with the scenes in which you place him. This manner of expressing character traits is quite common and is the most true to life. In our lives, we judge people by the way they act, do we not? We all know that “Actions speak louder than words,” and, consciously or not, we often determine our outlook toward people in this manner. So, too, will your readers when watching your character act and react. This technique easily brings your reader into the scene.

Perhaps the most useful method is to use a blend of the various methods. You may, for example, give a bit of description and write about a character’s personal ticks to show his true colors. This technique is often the best way to introduce your major characters.

Whatever method or combination of methods you use, insure the people you create feel true to life or all you work is for naught.

Until we meet again, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”


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  1. What a super essay on writing to pop up in my e-mail just when I am struggling with my new novels! Thanks so much!

    Stephanie
    CLAUDE & CAMILLE: A NOVEL OF CLAUDE MONET (Crown, April 2010)

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