If your readers don't care about your characters,
you're sunk. Readers don't necessarily have to like
all of your characters, but they have to care
about what happens to your main character, or there's no
reason for them to keep reading.
Which means you have to care about your characters, and you have to know them, maybe even better than you know yourself. To create characters that live and breathe on the page, you must first create characters that live in breathe in your psyche. This is why you need to know much more about them than you'll ever have to include in your completed story.
One way to achieve this authentic character history is to put your main character(s) in as many real-life situations as possible. And because thinking is only the first stage and can only get you so far, write these situations out, considering all sorts of details.
When you can imagine your character in different places and with different people, beyond people and places your story requires, you make your fictional people exponentially more realistic within the confines of your own story.
Start by deciding on the basics: your main character's date of birth and favorite things (such as food, color, activity, place, song, movie, book, friend, family member, possession, game, animal/pet, amusement park ride, season). Remember: these are details you'll want to work out, even though they may never need to be discussed in your story.
The basics is great place to start, but to create the most vivid, memorable characters, you'll need to stretch your imagination and go beyond the basics.
The following exercises will get you started in developing rich, believable, interesting characters. Choose the exercises you're most drawn to, and really let yourself go—don't worry about polished sentences or grammar or mechanics. (You can't plumb the depths of your imagination when you're worried about comma placement.)
STRENGTHS/WEAKNESSES: List emotional, intellectual, and physical strengths and weaknesses for your character. Include any special talents or aptitudes. Get your hands on an IQ test and take it from your character's perspective, not yours. (Tricky, but fun and worthwhile.)
DINNER AT OUR HOUSE: Imagine a family meal at your main character's dinner table. Write a short descriptive scene revealing the average evening meal at your main character's house.
Now revisit that meal scene and add tension. (After all, tension makes fiction go 'round.) Perhaps the school principal called Mom that afternoon and therefore Mom has some serious lecturing to do (or some serious disappointment to relate). Or maybe Dad lost his job that day and -- over meatloaf and green beans -- tells the family that they'll have to be uprooted (again). Perhaps the teen daughter brings home a dinner date who only Mom (an undercover detective) recognizes as a convicted felon.
The point is: think of an emotionally-charged piece of information that will make this meal very different from the one above. Write this scene, paying attention to specifics.
WHAT WOULD S/HE DO? Imagine an ethical dilemma that your character finds himself/herself in. Maybe your character was offered a job promotion or a large bonus based on a task s/he didn't carry out alone. Does s/he tell the truth and share the credit with the colleague or keep quiet about it and bask in the glory solo? Choose a moral quandary, plunk your character it in, and write a short, thorough, descriptive scene. Be sure to tap into your character's thoughts, fears, conflicts, and ultimately how s/he arrived at the final decision.
DEAR DIARY: Write three diary/journal entries from your main character's point of view, fully in his/her voice and in his/her head. Make the entries occur on different days and have them deal with different events and emotions. Try to include a whole range of feelings -- joy, sorrow, rage, uncertainty, anxiety, to name a few.
DOCTOR, DOCTOR: Write up your character's last physical exam report, as it would be written by the family physician. Include all relevant details, along with any physical complaints the character might mention.
Then write up some clinical notes from a psychologist who has been seeing your character in therapy. Perhaps your character has discussed his/her worst fear with the doctor. Reveal as much background to that fear as you can: when and why it began, how it's manifested, how your character struggles to cope with it.
DEAR AUTHOR: Your character writes you (the author) a letter, instructing you quite specifically in how s/he wants to be portrayed in the book. Make your character's personality come through loud and clear in this letter. Try to set yourself aside as you write it.
JOB APPLICATION: Get your hands on a job application (or create one of your own), and fill it out from your character's point of view. Include work history, schooling, references, as well as the character's statement explaining why s/he would be perfect for the job.
Always remember to have fun with these. The minute you're not having fun, stop. The looser and more relaxed you are when you try these exercises, the more you'll get from them. You'll discover things about your character you never thought you knew, which translates to a more fully realized, believable person alive in your story.
To discover additional ways to make your writing habit more enjoyable, satisfying and productive, visit http://ManuscriptRx.com and sign up for "Write Through It," the FREE monthly e-newsletter that offers practical writing advice and anecdotal wisdom.
Lucia Zimmitti, a writing coach and independent editor, is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the Editorial Freelancers Association. Her fiction and poetry have been published in various national literary journals, and she has taught writing at the high school and college levels.
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