How to Breathe Life into Your Characters

Today’s guest post is by author Morgan St. James.

Many novice writers find it  tempting to simply string together a word laundry list to describe a character’s physical attributes or their behavior in routine or off-the-chart situations. Some go a little beyond dry description and use inner thoughts to pump up the situation.

That can represent a pitfall if not used with discretion. I recently read a book that would have really been good but for the excessive use of inner dialogue—an average of at least three or four per chapter. It is better to create characters with feelings, emotions and a physical presence.

One of the most important qualities a fictional character can possess is to seem real to the reader.

Creating characters doesn’t have to be daunting. It is important to remember that the reader sees events through the eyes of the players in the story. Unless it is critical to a specific character, avoid populating your story with characters who are devoid of emotion. Characters that seem like a bunch of paper dolls reading from a script.

On the other hand, it’s easy to get carried away with creating overblown figures. Strive to strike a balance.

Putting Life into Physical Descriptions

As long as they aren’t overused, adjectives, adverbs, similes, and metaphors are your friends. If you use them sparingly in the right places, it sparks the reader’s imagination. The reader might draw parallels to familiar images and visualize them in her mind’s eye.

This is where prudence plays a huge role, because overuse of these modifiers will minimize everything you are trying to create. Too many similes, metaphors, adjectives, or adverbs squashed together a sentence or paragraph makes the reader wonder whether he wants to endure more of these inane words or descriptions.

I remember one book I read where there were so many similes and metaphors, I heard myself exclaim out loud, “Not again!” or “Now what?” I eventually stopped reading the book from pure mental exhaustion.

Tap into Your Own Impressions and Avoid Clichés

Avoid clichés by reaching into your own experiences. Create word pictures about things that impressed you, then apply them to something about one of your characters. For an example, let’s use the description “the woman had shining blond hair.” How can you amplify that without going overboard? If it was straight, did it just hang there or shimmer like a golden shawl?

Why would I choose the simile of a golden shawl for this example? Because I pictured a former business partner and friend who had hair like that. I could never look at her without thinking of a silky golden shawl.

Okay, let’s picture the opposite. Maybe the hair isn’t straight but curly. Could tight ringlets be described as coiled little ringlets like the fur on a pampered poodle? Maybe this blond hair undulates in luxurious waves reminiscent of waves kissed by the glow of the sun as they rush toward the shore.

In each of these examples we picture a different person. Every reader will have her unique vision of that person. By simply saying “her straight blond hair” or “curly blond hair,” it would never launch the reader’s imagination in the same way.

Create Your Own Reference File

So often these images are fleeting. Perhaps it was something someone said, something we remembered or saw. It is right there on the edge of our memory but we can’t pull that image back when we need it.

While this might not be right for everyone, consider keeping a log. Distinct emotions occur when an image like that pops into your mind, and those emotions create a describable impression. Using the example above, if you saw hair badly in need of care, you could write: “her blond hair reminded me of a field of hay long past the time it should have been harvested.”

Why keep the notebook?

If you need something special in the future, if you make notes from your own experience or imagination, the description will be there when you need it. I liked the sound of a description from some 1940’s movie on late night TV—“Like an old dowager attempting to keep her dignity.” That image stuck with me. Later I used it to create a visual image of a shabby sofa with arm caps covering the worn spots. A description of a dowager wasn’t related to a sofa, but the image of hanging onto the last bit of dignity was clear.

Drawing upon Your Own Emotional Experiences

Picture an emotional situation in the story. It doesn’t matter whether the scene is one of love at first sight, terror, or delight. If your character feels deep emotion, so will the reader. Remember, reactions encompass both physical and mental. Soar to the heights or drop to the depths. Swell with pride or be reduced to tears. That’s the mental side.

Now for physical reactions. Does the character’s stomach twist in spasms? Is the person so happy they feel a bit lightheaded? That’s where the writer becomes a method actor.

You’ve probably heard “write what you know” so many times you’re sick of it. Your own experience may have no direct relationship whatsoever to the scene you’re in the process of creating, but the feelings are the same. Actors use this device all the time.

Let’s use terror. Immerse yourself in a memory that taps into that emotion. The odds are you have never been threatened at gunpoint as your scene now dictates, but have you been in an accident? Have you taken tests at a doctor’s office and been terrified to learn the results? Have you walked through an isolated area, then heard a noise?

What did you feel in these situations? Terror. What does your victim feel? Terror.

Again, it’s not the same situation, but terror creates a set of physical and mental reactions, regardless of the situation.

Your Notebook is Your Personal Databank

Don’t waste time trying to relate the actual experience to a scene in your manuscript unless it is relevant. The “emotion” notes you created should encompass the senses, not what caused them.

Allow your mind to roam free while writing down feelings. When memories take hold, capture everything that surges back. Surprisingly, that information can be used many times in a multitude of manuscripts. The basics are the same. Let’s say the reaction was rampant thoughts, shortness of breath, or a sensation like your chest was squeezed in a vise. The storyline might change, but the reaction is valid. It was triggered by the emotion of terror.

Another helpful section for notes about personal experiences covers details about what happened to you or what you experienced. Select your own category. Simply calling it “Experiences” works for me. In the future, you’ll be able to flip to those references.

The bonus from doing this is when you write your scene, everything will feel real because you experienced the same emotions and/or physical reactions your characters will experience.

How have you drawn on your experiences to create believable characters? Have you used a strong emotional past experience to help you convey a character’s emotions??

Morgan St. James is on the board of Writers of Southern Nevada. She currently has 18 books in publication, including the handbook Writers’ Tricks of the Trade, and more than published 600 articles about diverse subjects. St. James i frequently appears on radio, podcasts, and author’s panels, and she presents workshops and talks at writers’ conferences. Connect with Morgan at her website and blog.

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  1. I don’t usually keep a journal of those things, but one time I did. I was flying out west and watching the sky through the window I saw all sorts of images that came alive to me. I wrote notes on everything I pictured. When I wrote my novel, I was able to use a lot of it to describe my main character’s flight to an entirely different location. It was funny, because as I was writing the lady sitting in the seat next to me asked me if I was writing a book. At the time I had no idea it would end up in a book. So it can be profitable to record what we see and feel. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    1. That is exactly what I meant. You never know when you will be able to use something you saw or felt, and we can’t always trust our memory. Nothing is more annoying than the attempt to remember something that is “on the tip of our tongue.” Thanks for your comment.

  2. This is very helpful. I’ve definitely used strong emotions from my past to convey what my characters are feeling. Using a journal is a good idea for those lesser emotions that I haven’t recollected well enough to pull forward. I also like the idea of journaling when my impressions of people inspire a simile.

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