by Barbara Linn Probst
Stories are about what happens to the characters in them. It doesn’t matter if those characters are robots, pigs, spiders, or dragons. We read to find out how the character’s schemes and adventures turned out. Without characters, there’s no story.
In my experience, characters are “born” in different ways. Some appear fully-formed—how they look and talk, even their names. Others appear slowly, like a person walking toward me from far away. And still others have to be wrestled into existence; they almost seem to resist my need for them, requiring endless re-envisioning.
It doesn’t seem to depend on the character’s age, gender, background, personality, or how similar (or different) we are. In The Sound Between the Notes, for example, there are two minor characters, Beryl Dumont and Jimmy Ray Calhoun, who made themselves known to me at once, right down to their names. I didn’t have to search, struggle, or even think about how to bring them to life; they were vivid and authentic from the very beginning.
I wonder, sometimes: do we invent our characters, or do we get to know them? Do we build them, bit by bit, out of our storehouse of details and knowledge, as a landscaper might? Or do we coax them into existence, like a midwife, and marvel at the new person we’re eager to know?
Below are four questions, along with some practical strategies, that can help to create characters who are fully alive.
That’s the first question we need to ask, and perhaps the most essential, because every character has to have a narrative purpose. By “narrative purpose,” I mean that the character has to evoke a specific struggle in the protagonist or be the agent of a critical emotional turning point in the story. If he weren’t there, the story wouldn’t work; the protagonist wouldn’t achieve her goal, or the story would have a different ending and thus a different premise. Merely being a “colorful character” isn’t enough to justify someone’s presence on the page.
The character’s role may suggest traits that embody, evoke, or serve as an intriguing contrast. For example, if you have a character whose story role is to periodically deflate your protagonist’s over-inflated balloon, you might want to give her a specific way of talking (e.g., no adjectives, short sentences) or a signature gesture (e.g., folding her arms, an offhand flick of her fingers) that conveys the impression of someone who’s only interested in the concrete here-and-now. A voice or gesture like this is congruous with her role in the story; it fits our image, and thus reinforces our perception.
On the other hand, you might want to create some depth and interest by giving her a trait that doesn’t seem to fit at all—an incongruous element that makes her vivid and intriguing. In a book that I’ll probably never finish, for good reason, I had a tough street-smart character whose hobby was carving tiny wooden animals.
The role has to be unique as well as essential; if two characters serve the same purpose, one has to go. You may want to combine them, preserving the more evocative aspects of each.
Best of all is when a character serves multiple purposes, or serves the same purpose at multiple moments in the story. For example, Daniel, the four-year-old son of the protagonist of Queen of the Owls, allows us to see Elizabeth as a loving mother, thus enhancing our connection and empathy. But Daniel’s innocent remarks also serve as the vehicle for several important plot twists. For him to serve these dual purposes, he had to be a certain age with a certain kind of personality—curious, talkative, blithely unaware. If I’d wanted to show Elizabeth as vain or short-tempered, I would have created a different son for her, one whose behavior would evoke those qualities so the reader could see them in action.
The character can be someone we’re unlikely to meet in our own lives—more eccentric, heroic, talented, or tormented than anyone we’re apt to encounter—yet she still has to seem believable.
One way a writer can deliver a fantastic or larger-than-life character who also seems real is to give her a secondary trait that feels instantly and intuitively relatable—that is, credible, rendering the character herself credible. The trait can humanize a character who might otherwise seem unlikable or unapproachable. Think of Clemenza in The Godfather, a killer who enjoyed making homemade tomato sauce, or Chuck Yaeger in The Right Stuff, the unflappable pilot who broke the sound barrier and liked to chew Beeman’s gum.
What makes a character believable isn’t the tomato sauce, of course, but what it represents and evokes in us—in this case, a feeling of home, warmth, generosity. Characters in science fiction and fantasy, gods and goddesses in mythology, and other characters who clearly aren’t “real” can feel like they’re real when they act, react, and experience life the way we do. When a character yearns, rages, worries, mourns, or rejoices, we believe in his humanity. Think of Wilbur and Charlotte, pig and spider. You don’t need to be human to have humanity.
Once you’re clear about why the character belongs in your book and why the reader should accept her authenticity, the next thing to consider is what took place in her life before the story begins. Everything that happened to her during that time—childhood wounds and triumphs, choices she made, seminal influences and incidents—will affect her behavior in your story.
You need to know all of that—but your reader doesn’t. In other words, you need to know much more about her than the reader ever will. Sometimes a single gesture or a bit of dialogue is all you need in order for the reader to understand that this particular character acts on impulse or, in contrast, is afraid to commit. You, as author, need to know where the character’s impulsivity came from, especially if it’s crucial to the plot; knowing its origin, history, and the myriad ways it manifests provide the soil from which the character’s actions can emerge in a way that feels authentic, rather than trite or one-dimensional. But the reader might not need to know all that.
You may need to write pages and pages that never make their way into the book because they don’t move the story along. They have a different purpose, however— to help you get to know the character.
Start with the concrete details. What was her favorite childhood toy, article of clothing, animal, song? What’s her bedtime routine? What’s on her nightstand? What does she eat for breakfast? From there, you can let your mind take you back in time to the moments that made her who she is today. What does she dream about? How does she relax? How would someone know that she’s anxious or upset? It’s important to write all this out, not just think it. You might want to write it down in a special folder, separate from the manuscript.
Some people like to find a photo that looks the way they envision the character; they might even print the photo and tape it to their writing desk. You could even look for photos of the clothes the character might wear, the house she might live in. I don’t know anyone who searches for an audio recording of a voice that sounds the way their character would sound, but it’s certainly possible that a writer might do that! Think of how Prokofieff used different instruments to represent the various characters in Peter and the Wolf. Personally, I like to act out certain characters—to move across the room, sit and stand, the way they might.
No doubt there are many other prompts and tools. Use whatever helps you to feel your character as a living person.
In my experience, there’s one more step, beyond all the prompts, pictures, and exercises. Somehow you have to feel your character—what she fears, craves, loathes. Because each character is a part of your own self. That’s where it gets scary. You don’t actually have to experience whatever happens to Character X in your story, but you do have to dig down, open yourself, and feel that shame, rage, envy, despair, or humiliation inside yourself—where it already lives, in your own past or present.
Access it. Feel it. And then translate, re-embody it in your character.
What about you? How do you get to know your characters and let them come alive? Is there, or has there been, a character that keeps eluding you—a character whose “aliveness” you just can’t seem to feel? Do you have a hunch about why that it is?
Are there other strategies, in addition to the ones described here, that you’ve used to bring a character to life? Please share them with us down in the comments!
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launched April 2021.
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