by LK Hunsaker
Breathing life into your characters; a few tips.
Cracking the Characterization Code
Okay, so it’s not a code, exactly. However, there are certain key things you can do in order to bring that extra life into your characters that makes the difference between holding a reader or not.
You have a great plot, right? Great! Or maybe you don’t have a plot yet. Maybe you have people stirring around in your brain who need to find a story into which they can jump. Plots, like cute guys (as the song says), are a dime a dozen. What hasn’t already been done?
In order to have a truly great story, your character has to actually live and breathe on the pages. They have to be believable. The path to making this happen is not as insurmountable as it may seem. Let me give you a few ideas to try.
Live with your character.
In other words, while you are doing the dishes, washing the car, shopping, going to a movie, or whatever else your daily life may entail, take your character with you. What would she be thinking about while standing over the sink? Does she hate the monotony or does she enjoy the splash of the water between her fingers or the warmth that penetrates her skin during the midst of a winter in which she can never get warm except when her hands are in hot dishwater? Is she listening to music or does she prefer the silence of her thoughts? Is she worried about breaking a fingernail or are they too short to break?
What movies would she go to see if she had her choice? Why? Would she give in and see something she doesn’t want to see just because her best friend/boyfriend/husband/sibling wants to see it or does she refuse and go sit in a different theater by herself instead? Does she stay home and read a romance, a horror, or the encyclopedia?
While you are arguing with a friend about politics, consider how your character would feel about the issues. Why would she feel that way? What happened in her life to give her the specific views she holds? Driving along the highway, consider the music that’s playing and decide whether or not your character would enjoy each song. Again, know why.
Draw a picture of your character.
You don’t have to be an artist and no one else has to see it. Putting the details in “human” form, though, can help you visualize the way he looks, and dresses, and holds himself. Even if it doesn’t come out right in the drawing, it will help you look at him in more life-like terms. Does his hair lay flat or curl or stick up like an unwanted partial mohawk? How does this affect his view of himself? Does he have glasses ? If so, what do the frames look like? Why did he choose those frames? Does he smoke or drink a lot of coffee? If so, are his teeth yellowed or does he spend a lot of money on whitening products for the sake of vanity?
Give your character a birthday.
Even if you don’t ever use it in your story, knowing when a person is born can add to her personality in some way. Does she believe in astrology and follow the horoscopes? Is her birthday so close to a holiday that it gets overlooked? Is she the first born, middle child, or an only child? How does she feel about this?
Delve into relationships not included in the story.
Your story may not involve a character’s family members directly, but all family relationships influence people in some way. How does he get along with his parents and/or siblings? Are there cousins that matter to him? Did squabbles and the way they were handled affect the way he deals with conflict? Does he like babies or children? Why or why not?
What about friends? While growing up, if he’s an adult, did he have a lot of friends he hung out with at every opportunity? Did he have only one or two? Did any of those friendships end up hurting or helping him in a major way?
Does your character have a catch phrase? If not, maybe she should have. Does she have a habit of watching reality shows or soap operas? Does she have to walk on the inside wall of the top floor of a mall because the railing is terrifying? One of my characters insists that all of her drinks be lukewarm, including soda and coffee. There’s no particular reason for this except that it makes her more human. We all have peculiarities. Keep your eye out for something someone does or says that you can use.
Record your thoughts.
You may want to write out a paragraph or so of the separate sections, or just think about whichever aspects are most important to your story. Spending some quality time, in your mind or on paper, with your characters will give them lives of their own. Once formed, they can’t help but make their way to your pages.
One more hint: be sure to people watch. So that guy on the metro may think you’re flirting when you’re simply studying a habit or the way his hair looks to use in your writing. He doesn’t need to know the truth.