How to Bring Your Characters to Life

What is a story without vivid and interesting characters? Not much of a story at all. Our goal as writers is to create characters our readers will care about. You can give readers an exciting and thrilling plot, even give them edge-of-the-seat suspense, but without memorable characters, your readers will quickly lose interest.

Characters are one of the most vital elements of our story. But how do we create characters worth reading about? In today’s post I will give you strategies to develop memorable characters and 4 ways to introduce those characters to your reader.

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THE CHARACTER INTERVIEW

While every detail doesn’t need to end up in your book, you as the writer need to know your characters inside and out. By knowing them well, you’ll be better able to develop realistic, well-rounded characters your readers will grow to care about. One way to get to know each personality well is through the character interview.

Some writers have very in-depth character interview worksheets, while others just write a basic summary. Below is the character worksheet I used to develop Avanell (Avey) Archer in Choices. As you can see, it’s not a super detailed worksheet, but it does give me a pretty good idea of who she is.

NAME: Avanell Leigh Archer
NICKNAME: Avey
PARENTS: Addie and Jesse Archer
SIBLINGS: Dorothy (Dot) Archer
LOCATION/HOME: Ayer, Iowa; family farm; small town
PERSONALITY TYPE: 4 (Enneagram Test) Expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, temperamental
FATAL FLAW: Envy. Life is about drama, tragedy, falling in love; type 4 personalities also tend to wallow in self-pity.
BIRTHDAY: November 21, 1939
ECONOMIC STATUS: Born to small-town, God-fearing farmers. Church and their community is a central aspect of their life.
FRIENDS: Due to the nature of the fatal flaw in her personality, she is unable to keep real friends. She justifies it in her own mind by telling herself they’re jealous of her beauty and achievements.
ENEMIES: She sees her mother and small-town living as her enemy.
HOW DO OTHERS PERCEIVE THIS CHARACTER: Beautiful, full of potential yet self-destructive.
PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: Dark brown/black hair, cold blue eyes, nice figure, petite, full lips, delicate. Think Vivian Leigh.
CHARACTERISTICS/PERSONALITY: She fights all authority. She’s vindictive, self-righteous, temperamental, hot-headed, completely self-absorbed, and a master manipulator. She cares about her sister Dot. She worries about what others think of her.
HOPES/DREAMS: She wants to leave small-town life, which she despises, to find fame and fortune as a model. Everything she does is to that end.
INTERESTS/HOBBIES: Fashion magazines, movies.

As you can see, it’s a pretty basic template. You can make it as in-depth or basic as you need it to be, adding to it as necessary as the story develops.

PRO TIP: As the story progresses and I get to know the character even better, I’ll add notes to the character worksheet, ensuring nothing is contradicted throughout the story.

USING PERSONALITY TESTS TO DEVELOP YOUR CHARACTERS

As you read above in the character interview, I assigned a personality type to Avey: number 4 on the Enneagram Test. The Enneagram system is a tool which can be used to discover how your character interprets the world and helps to identify how they might react in any given situation. For example:

Avanell (Avey) Archer

  • Type 4—The Individualist: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, Temperamental
  • Center: Feeling (unique strengths and liabilities involve feelings)
  • Emotion: Shame (this is her powerful, unconscious emotional response to the loss of contact with the core of self)
  • Coping Mechanism: Her focus is on her own uniqueness and how special she is. She highlights her individuality as a way of dealing with shamefulness. She has a potential to succumb to feelings of inadequacy and manage shame by creating a rich and romantic fantasy life so she does not have to deal with what seems boring or uninteresting to her.

The answers to this test gave me a lot of information about Avey and helped me to understand her in a way that I might not have been able to without it. It helped me to understand what her fatal flaws are, but also gave me insight into her strengths. Another test often used to develop characters is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is a system of 16 personality types you can use to further develop your characters. Both tests are great tools and you can use one or both of them to help define the personality traits of your character.

4 WAYS TO INTRODUCE YOUR CHARACTERS TO YOUR READERS

(All examples are from Choices, Book 1 of The Catalyst Series.)

1 | Create scenes in which your characters are actively doing something. Sitting around simply planning gets boring and doesn’t give much insight into your character. By putting the character in the midst of action, you’re showing your reader a lot about your character’s personality. In the following example, we get a glimpse of who Avey is when she reveals to Dot that she’s been stealing from the collection plate at church.

“I’m not going to Mrs. Hardwick’s dumb house. You can
go if you want to, but Momma promised we could go to town,
and that’s just where I’m going. I plan on buying myself
something nice and I can’t do that at Mrs. Hardwick’s,” she
said.

I rubbed my thumb over the ends of my fingers makin’ the
money sign. Avey raised her eyebrows as a slow grin spread
across her face.

“Oh, I have money, lots of money, don’t you worry.”
I tipped my head, makin’ Daddy’s “question” face. I
couldn’t imagine where she would get money. She stood up
on her tiptoes and twirled around in circles like a ballerina.
“I bet you want to know where I got these.” She slowly
opened her left hand revealin’ two shiny silver coins.
“Church,” she said smilin’.

Church? I tipped my head to the side feelin’ confused. If
they were payin’ people to go to church, I would have heard
about it.

“You know…the collection plate?” she said. “When it
comes my turn to put money into the plate, I put in the nickel
Momma gives me, then I make
change.” She chuckled at her
own joke.

Sweet Jesus, Avey had done some crazy things but never
anythin’ as crazy as this. Avey was stealin’ from God. She
broke the eighth commandment that said clear as day, “Thou
shalt not steal.”

She had been goin’ to church every Sunday of her life and
she knew that commandment just as well as she knew her own
name.

“Oh, Dod, don’t give me those big eyes, and you better
close your mouth before a fly flies out.”

2 | Be sure when you describe your character it adds something vital to the story. Don’t include long descriptions of hair color, eye color, body weight, height, etc. Instead, incorporate little details throughout and early in your story, but be sure to include them in a way that is vital to what is happening in the scene. In the following example, we are shown that Avey is 13 and that she has blue eyes. This was done in a way that is vital to the scene and its purpose.

“Avey baby, is that a new scarf you’re wearing?”

“It is, Daddy. Do you like it?”

“It’s very becoming. It sets off your eyes right pretty and
makes you look older than thirteen.”

“Avey,” Momma was lookin’ at her real suspicious.
“Where did you get that scarf?”

“My friend Donna gave it to me,” Avey said in her “testy”
voice. “The bits of blue bring out the color in my eyes,” she
said, swipin’ the end of it under my nose. “Don’t they, Dod?”

3 | Sometimes all it takes are a few striking details to anchor a character in our minds. Everyone has an image of the woman who walks around with a mink wrapped around her neck. Just the way she slides her eyes toward them and turns her nose up gives us a good inkling of who she is.

A heavyset woman wobbled into the pew in front of us. I
was assaulted by the sweet scent of rose perfume. The large
pelt of a dead animal was draped over her shoulders. She removed
the fur and slung it over the back of the pew. I watched
as Avey’s face lit up, her hand reaching out as though it had a
will of its own. She buried her fingers into the thick auburn
hairs. She gasped, “Oh my God!” at the top of her lungs.
“This is gorgeous! Is it mink? This must’ve cost a fortune.”

The lady turned abruptly, sliding her eyes toward us and
turned her nose up. She snorted as she pulled the dead rodent
from Avey’s hands. “Of course it’s mink.”

4 | Include details that highlight your character’s personality from another character’s point of view. In the following example, Avey portrays a vivid interpretation of her mother’s personality from her own point of view. This is done in the midst of a very emotionally charged scene.

“No, she doesn’t.” Avey was screamin’ now. “She only
cares about herself. She never cared about any of the rest of
us. She is mean and spiteful. You don’t know how she is
when you’re not around, Daddy. She works me and Dot nearly
to death. She does nothing all day but sit around and listen
to her stupid radio. You want to live like that, then it’s up to
you, but I’m not gonna do it, I swear I’m not.” Avey ripped
her arm away from Daddy and ran upstairs cryin’.


Complex characters are a lot of fun to write, and by using the tips above you’ll be better able to bring them to life. Given the chance, our characters will spring off the page as three-dimensional people we grow to care about. They become good friends who are hard to forget because they are compelling, interesting, and real, enticing us to continue turning the page until “the end.”

I'd love to hear from you! Tell us about the character you had the most fun writing in the comments below.

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