December’s Question of the Month

How do you bring a character to life?

Answer: Write what you know. Be stingy with your words. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Remember your first writing teacher’s advice — “write what you know.” Each character you create is made up of many and various facets of your own personality. For a realistic character you should dig thorough your own background for details, insights and motivations.
Imagine your mind, consciousness, awareness is a light bulb and your light bulb is attached to other people’s light bulbs by way of electric wires. You can send your awareness along those wires to other people’s light bulbs (awareness) and understand what they are thinking and feeling. If you want a character in a story to be angry, show their anger. Think of how you feel when you are angry. Does your face get red? Say so. Do your hands shake? Say so. Does the pressure build until it feels like your head is going to explode? Say so. If you feel this way when you are angry your character can feel this way too and it will be convincing, realistic. Show other people’s reactions to you when you get angry and how those reactions make you feel inside. You can then transfer your reactions and feelings to paper for your character to know and feel.
You have to give your character a personality, family, background, history, body, hair color, eye color, size, weight, memories, quirks and all those little details that make each of us unique. The details do not have to be your own personal details but might be from a sister, a parent or friend; however, they have to be details with which you are so familiar you can discuss and manipulate them convincingly.
You have to place your character in an environment and have them function in it. If they are a misfit show why they do not fit in the environment or society. If they are popular show them in the midst of people enjoying the banter, the give and take of interpersonal communication, or the adoration of others for them. Stick with the familiar! It may seem obvious but if you are American, have never stepped foot out of your home town, nor done much reading don’t try to write a story about life in Nepal or Outer Mongolia! Nobody will believe it.
Think of your words as money — every word counts, don’t waste them. Be specific and succinct. Pick through the details available to you for your character and story and choose only those words and details that further the effect you are trying to create in your story. Be merciless, stingy with your words. When in doubt leave it out.
As you write and rewrite your character you will be adding details and events and removing details and events. I call this process “breathing for the character” or “giving him/her artificial respiration”. If you stick with it (manipulating details) long enough, you will reach a certain level of focus where your character tells you what he/she wants to do and say.
When you reach that point your character is breathing for him/herself, has come to life, taken on an identity of his/her own, will jump off the page and do what he/she wants to do, not necessarily what you think you want him/her to do. That is the point you are trying to reach. Your character has come to life and will tell you how to finish your story.

Dixie Thomas Reale


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