I have always considered writing a book akin to creating a living, breathing world out of ink, paper, and imagination. The “living” comes from a setting that is well researched and developed. The “breathing”? That comes from the characters.
What kind of characters breathe? The logical answer would be all of them. After all, all humans, animals, fish, even plants need air so technically all characters breathe but that’s the boring part everyone says to leave out, right? Not exactly, my friend. Throw logic aside for a moment. In fact, just go ahead and chuck it out the window because you won’t need it for the rest of this post. Good. Now we’ll ask the question again.
What kind of characters breathe? The ones that live. They are the ones that jump off the page, grab you by the heart, make you laugh with them and cry for them. A discerning reader, editor or reviewer may not always notice when a characters is breathing because they are too busy being swept away by the story. However, they can usually tell when one isn’t. I am always pleased when readers remarks about how real my characters seemed to them. I’ve even had other writers ask me how I manage to create characters that seem so believable. In essence, they are asking, why do your characters breathe?
I think it’s because my perspective on characters is so simple. You see, the characters in my books seem real because they are real—to me. I assume that since I am creating a living, breathing world out of my imagination the character is already there living and breathing.
Rather than creating a character out of thin air by brainstorming their goals, motivation, quirks, weaknesses, appearance, etc; I discover who my character already is. Suddenly, the pressure is off of me to create and on them to reveal everything they need me to know and even what they don’t want me to know.
Now you can ask the questions that will help you get to know them. Such as:
- The basics: What is your name? How old are you? What do you look like? Where are you from? Why are you here? Where do you want to go in life? Why aren’t you already there? Do you have a family? What are they like?
- The nitty-gritty: What are you hiding? What is your problem—spiritually, emotionally and/or physically? What would cause you the most pain? What makes you laugh?
- My favorites: What do you need in a husband or wife? What kind of chemistry do you share with the hero/heroine?
Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you they will answer you. In fact, I really don’t recommend conversing with your characters. That’s a line between fantasy and reality that even I won’t cross. Still, you should listen and watch for their answers. A name may seem just right or all wrong for them. Imagining an interaction between your hero and heroine may show you their chemistry. Intuition may tell you there is something they are trying to hide.
It isn’t always easy to discover things about your characters when you allow them to be “real people”. Sometimes you have to be like an archeologist and dig for what you really want. At first glance, the heroine of my latest release A Texas-made Match didn’t seem to have any internal conflict at all. She was just a happy go-lucky gal with a tendency to get into mischief. I thought to myself, no way. Everyone has problems. Not only must she be hiding something, but it must be a huge something that she has gotten extremely adept at covering up. I eventually discovered her guilty secret and her entire personality took on new depth.
Perhaps you’re thinking, I know all of that already. Maybe I didn’t figure it out my characters that way but they are fully formed in my mind. They just aren’t breathing on paper. Have no fear. It’s never too late for resuscitation. I leave you with this last bit of advice.
Make them B.R.E.A.T.H.E.!
Body language— It’s like a fingerprint. Each character has a unique repository of gestures. No movement should be wasted or unnecessary. What’s the difference between characters played by John Wayne and Fred Astaire? When a take-no-prisoners cowboy like the characters John Wayne often played had something to say he would spread his feet about shoulder length apart, plant his fist on his slim hips and stare down at you through one squinted eye before he punched you square in the jaw. In the same situation, Fred Astaire’s often smart-alecky but smooth characters would lean against the nearest solid object, cross one leg in front of the other and give you a verbal slap with a twinkle in his eye. Now, that we all know I watch too many classic movies, let’s move on to R.
Reveal—Display the many facets of their personalities by exposing them to different stimuli. If your hero is a tough guy on the job, show his vulnerability when it comes to his a kid or pet or women. Suddenly, you’ve added another dimension. He’s both strong and caring. Don’t stop there. How can you show that he’s intelligent, moody, funny, etc?
Explain—Only explain what is absolutely necessary about your character and maybe even not that. Don’t be afraid to hide a little of their history or their motivations. There is nothing more intriguing than a little bit of mystery. Be sure to give little hints along the way so it when things are revealed it doesn’t seem to come from left feel. Think of it as leaving a breadcrumb trail to the feast.
Action—Be the director while your character is the actor. You have a script (plot) and so do they. They know their lines most of the time. They know how they want to behave. Coach them through it, call the shots, but don’t be afraid to let them improvise.
Test—Put your characters to the test. If they have a fear, use it against them. Let something go wrong—maybe even really wrong. It allows readers to identify with them because we all have fears and make mistakes. It’s only by going through trials that characters (and people) overcome them.
Hear—Just like your characters have a unique way of moving, they have a unique way of speaking. Some people never say what they really mean. Others are blunt. Everything may be a joke or a sign that the world is going to end. Don’t fall into the trap of being one-dimensional here. Very few people communicate only one way all the time. Be purposeful about why a character communicates a certain way to a certain person at a certain time.
Evolution—Your character should be noticeably different by the end of your story whether in attitude, spirituality, motivation or mindset. It is a gradual but steady progression of refusing, considering, deciding, trying, failing or faltering, then finally succeeding to change.
Today Noelle is generously giving away a copy of A Texas-Made Match, to one commenter. Tell us what you think about her B.R.E.A.T.H.E technique. Winner announced in the weekend edition.
A Texas-Made Match
For Ellie O'Brien, finding the perfect partner is easy—as long as it's for other people. Now the townsfolk of Peppin want to return the favor. But how could Lawson Williams be the right choice? The handsome ranch foreman was her childhood friend, but he's the man Ellie deems least likely to court a tomboy with a guilty secret.
Lawson can't help enjoying the town's efforts to push him together with Ellie, though marriage isn't in his plans. Yet Ellie's become a warm, spirited woman who could chase away the clouds of his past. And with a whole town on their side, they could claim a love as big and bold as Texas itself….
Noelle Marchand's love of literature began as a child when she would spend hours reading beneath the covers long after she was supposed to be asleep. Over the years, God began prompting her to write by placing ideas for stories in her head. Eventually, those stories became like “fire shut up in her bones” leading her to complete her first novel by her sixteenth birthday. Now, at the age of twenty-four, that fire of inspiration continues to burn.
Noelle is a Houston-native who graduated from Houston Baptist University May 2012. She received bachelors degree in Mass Communication with a focus in journalism and Speech Communication.
(P.S. Noelle has a delightful interview from her first book,Unlawfully Wedded Bride, that you can watch here. It really gives you a feel for Noelle's sweet nature. -Tina Radcliffe)