How to Breathe Life in Your Characters
Now that you’ve gotten your characters’ names figured out as well as their descriptions,
it’s time to move onto their backgrounds. For example, who are their parents? Where did they grow up, when is their birthday? The more detail you can put into each of these little tidbits, the better. Don’t skip this precious step. I know it’s easy to think you can because most of the information won’t even show up in the book, but this leads to a one-dimensional character.
Who are they, where do they come from adds layers to them. Don’t settle for a stick-figure when you can have a fully-developed character. You may even have to go back further than your main characters to get a grip on your storyline. When I did my Akara world, I briefly touched on its roots but learned during two books that I’d neglected a whole depth of information. I needed to do a history on the tribe, the village, the founder before I could put my best efforts into the background. Thus I came up with Eauga and the tragic history connected with him.
Research comes in here, as in all points of the story. I had to study the area I wanted it set in, how the Native American tribes were treated, what became of them. I then had to bring the people forward into the time period I wanted to set it in. So, I had to age both my setting and those who had come before. I had to create a village, a county, a town, and city to go along with them. I had to delve into their communication systems, their heat/air conditioning situations, their paths taken. Spending the time doing the research isn’t always fun. Some days it’s downright boring, but when you hit on that little fact, that spark of imagination, it’s all worth it.
Like the character’s descriptions, I had to paint in my setting. The trees, the mountains, the rocks, and the lake. I had to show the acreage, the deed, if you will. This area forces you to dig down deep, to give it that extra effort. After all, you want your reader to stay immersed in your world, and not come crashing down to a world full of dirty dishes, housework, and boredom. People read to escape, to learn, to enjoy. What I did was to take pictures of places in the real world and bridge it with my own imaginings. Thus a snapshot of a mountain provided my inspiration there, likewise the lake, and other land features.
Know your population. How big or small is your town, city, county, state, or country? This is useful in giving us a visual of what the area looks like. Are there crowds down the sidewalks? Lonely, vacant buildings? Unused railroad tracks? Busy malls? Again, your characters must determine your setting, unless you’re trying to take a fish out of the water.
Who is their enemy/the conflict they fight against? Is it nature, man-made, a person/creature etc.? Let your surroundings dictate what sort of obstacle would arise in that world. My Akara are an isolated group. They’re used to being treated different by others who hold a prejudice against them due to race, class, or who they are. Here, I’ve layered their enemies as well. Besides the town’s fear of them, there is a secret society that desires to exterminate them, and creatures who hunt them, even as they are hunted by them.
What kind of education do they possess? Are they leaders among their people, or followers? Do they cower before shadows, or bravely scatter them in their paths? What about faith? Do they have one? How important is it to them? This can be a life-altering decision for your character just as much as it is for someone in real life. How does it make them go about their business? Shock them in moments of weakness? Bring them to their knees?
What about deaths in the family? Classic catalyst. What weapons do they use? Or are they forced into hand-to-hand combat? Their ideas/thoughts on fighting/wars are a major part of who they are. In truth, the best way to round your character/s is to think of yourself and others you know. What makes you up? Your politics? Does a fight in high school with one of your best friends at the time haunt you? Do you wish/regret that old flame you let die? What are your scars, physical and emotional?
Wrap these things and more into your characters and you will have winners/losers. After all, there’s a fair end to the spectrum. Our heroes/heroines must rise the occasion, our villains fall, and the losers in the story must play their part to bring out the best/worst in us all. Only then can we be assured we’ve done our job.