How to Breathe Life into Your Characters VI

How to Breathe Life into Your Characters




The way you bring your hero/heroine onto the page is important. Some say to start with a big bang, but that doesn’t allow your character enough time for the reader to come to identify with him/her. You want to begin with the inciting incident, for sure. This means what catastrophe is going to happen/the beginning of a romance/the window to the plot.

Don’t rush it. Take your time and bring the viewpoint character as close to the action as possible without dangling him over a cliff in the first few paragraphs. I’ve made some of the big no-no’s when it comes to beginning: beginning with dreams, describing the character via mirrors/pools, putting him/her into the thick of things before they’re developed enough.

That’s the key here. The reader wants to get to know your character before they decide to jump off a bridge/rush into the darkness with them. Because we all know there are consequences in those actions. However, for most of us, it’s like listening to the news. We’re aware of the situation but it doesn’t concern us because it’s not personal for us.

Let’s get a glimpse of their sock drawer where they’ve hidden a million dollars, watch the struggle over a comeback to the biggest bully in school, catch a peek of a shadowed figure before we’re swept into the action. This isn’t to say that you start with a dull opening. Far from it. You need a hook to catch an agent/editor’s attention. But a piece of advice: don’t go for the throat in the first sentence.

Think of your favorite books. Clary doesn’t start off in The City of Bones trying to rescue Jace as well as humankind. She doesn’t even know that’s on the horizon yet. She’s concerned with what her mother will think about her staying out late—again.

Katniss doesn’t fall onto the pages within The Hunger Games, a contestant bent on survival. No, we’re allowed to see both the good and the bad of her world. Introduced to those who care about her, and those she cares about. This shows us the window to the plot.

Mary doesn’t begin in the woods in The Forest of Hands and Teeth, but begins by describing a typical day. The horror of what she knows: living with zombies at the fences, always with the threat of their breaking through. We know it’s going to happen, just not when.

These authors were adept at dropping the reader into the book at just the right place. It is important that we know where the hero/heroine’s from, who their family is, what life means to them, and what they consider their fate is going to be. Each glance we get into their perspective worlds bridges the gap between them and the reader. Then, when the rider gallops into the village with news of impending doom, our heroine’s lunch tray gets thrust aside by the it girl, or our lovebirds meet for the first time, it’ll set off sparks.

And those sparks can fan a flame. Keep your characters real to themselves and your readers: show us all that they are made of, then break them down. This is where your story begins. But remember, quietly not with a bang.

7 thoughts on “How to Breathe Life into Your Characters VI

  1. I think this is one lesson most writers learn the hard way. ‘Starting with action’ doesn’t mean dump the reader into the middle of something, it means put them on the cusp of something. Have that tine window of their life before the inciting incident, not too long, but enough to make the big WHAM have meaning when it happens. 🙂

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse


  2. I think these are something we all struggle with, Angela. It’s hard to know where to begin but if you just throw your character’s into the raptor’s cage, they won’t have a chance to win sympathy or even have people care what happens to them. Much better to bring with “why” being in that cage happens/or is necessary. Then bring your raptor ever closer until we can feel its breath on our faces.


  3. Traci,
    Loved this post (LOL). I did a similar post not too long ago, complaining about how a lot of people are doing just that. I don’t mind action and a fast pace. But give me time to care about the characters. Otherwise, what’s the point?



  4. I agree with what’s been said here, yet I find I struggle with finding that right balance. As a writer I like to connect with my characters, but also want the readers to. Yet there is a fine balance between allowing the reader to get to know the characters and doing an info dump.

    Thanks for sharing Traci!


  5. Exactly, Joey. Finding that balance between introducing your character and just dumping info on the reader is truly a fine balance of things. Little bits of “history” work to enamor the reader, but if it’s all just one wave, it’ll overpower them and they’ll likely turn away. I think all writers struggle with how to give just enough background info without bogging the reader down. It’s definitely something you get better at handling with each piece you write. Whether it’s your first manuscript or your 50th, learning how to do things never stops, you just get better at it with practice.


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