If your character isn’t coming alive, step back and think about who he is and how you’re presenting him.
How many of your details are externals—purely objective details about physical appearance, age, environment, etc.? Did you introduce too many superficials, causing your plot to slip into the cracks of a personnel dossier? Several nonessential external facts can be pruned, perhaps altogether. For the essential details, consider dispersing them throughout the story. A good rule of thumb is to give your readers only as much background information or characterization as they need at any given time.
What are your emotionally charged internal drives, needs, and relationships? Are they powerful enough to goad your protagonist into actions and reactions? Will one or more of these elements dominate him, providing the organic center of your story? His emotional preoccupation and propensities needn’t take up real estate. With his makeup fixed in your mind, move your plot forward, allowing his internal issues to simmer slightly beneath the surface, soon to germinate into plot.
Conflict drives a story. From the first page, the first paragraph, maybe the first sentence. And the best conflict lies within the heart and mind of your protagonist—the inner turmoil gnawing at him, chewing him up, screwing him up, and tearing him apart.
It is hard to write someone you don’t know, harder still if you don’t care for him. Writers render characters best when they choose ones for which they possess either strong affections or aversions. The key in either case is enthusiasm. If your characters don’t stir your emotions, you can’t expect them to evoke emotions in your readers.
Is your cast of characters distinct from each other? Contrast provides a source of light and shadow that will define and individualize them. Consider the following questions.
- It’s an ordinary day, prior to your plot’s inciting incident. List ten things that your character does not want to happen in the next twenty-four hours. List ten things that he hopes will happen.
- Are there areas in your character’s life where he thinks one thing and does another? For instance, does he believe in saving for the future but doesn’t keep a balance in the bank?
- Does your character keep a routine appointment? Weekly? Annually? With whom? Is the standing date something he looks forward to or something he begrudgingly obligues? Is the routine appointment something he conceals or boasts about?
- What’s in your character’s pocket or pocketbook right now? Is there something he always carries with him?
- What is on your character’s bedroom floor? On his nightstand or hidden in his nightstand drawer? In his garbage can?
- Look at your character’s feet. Does he wear sneakers, wingtips, Birkenstocks, Mukluks, go barefoot? Are his socks pocked with holes? Are his feet manicured or thick with calluses and outgrown toenails?
- When your character thinks of his childhood home, what smell does he associate with it? Febreze? Homemade bread? Ashtray? Why does this smell resonant with him?
- It’s noon on Saturday. What is your character doing? Sleeping, yardwork, surfing the television or internet, sitting in the NASCAR stands, or mountain biking a patch of the Colorado Trail? Be specific.
- Saturday night has arrived. Where your character going? What does he wear? Who will he be with? How is Saturday night different from Monday night?
- If your character were to compare his life to an object, what object would he choose and why? Notice: if he says ‘anchor’, do not say why he sees himself as an anchor, but why he sees his life as an anchor.
- If his life were suddenly, magically transformed into his ideal, what object would represent this hypothetical life? Decribe why, then compare the two objects. Make a note of their qualities, their similarity and differences. Do any of these similarities or difference reflect on his personality? If so, how?
Return to your character profile and review how you answered the following questions? Ask yourself if you provided enough emotional fodder.
- Who are the most important people in your character’s life, and how does he relate to them?
- What could your character scarcely bear to part with? What price would he pay to protect it? How would he react if it were lost?
- What must your character deny or disguise, even from himself, because he absolutely cannot deal with it?
- What does your character believe that is doubtful or absolutely-wrong?
Finally, read through what you’ve written thus far and make a mental note of your character’s positive and negative actions. Have you emphasized his flaws at the expense of his likeability? Is the balance between strength and weakness what you had in mind for the character? Should you make changes to conform him to your initial concept? Or have you discovered that this character is someone other than who you first perceived? Most importantly, can your readers judge this person based on how you have revealed him?