Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, May 11, 2015

How to flesh out a character

Great characters leap off the page and take up residence in our brains. Every quirk, every bit of dialogue, every small detail just reinforces their realness.

But anyone who has written a novel knows that creating characters like that is really, really hard.

Many times characters start off, well, flat. They are plugging a necessary hole in the plot, and you may struggle to breathe life into them. Or they might feel like any other generic character, or, worse, the feel like you're imitating a character from another book or movie.

How do you transform a two-dimensional character into three? How do you perform CPR on a lifeless character?

Here are some tips:

Know what your characters want

This is by far the most important element in bringing a character to life. Every character must want something, and they should be actively trying to get that thing, in such a way that brings them into conflict with other characters and the setting.

We learn a ton about characters by knowing what they value and how they go about trying to get the things they want, especially when they're faced with tradeoffs. Are they in it for themselves or will they do the right thing? Are they ingenious or will they use brute force? Will they give up or persevere?

I talk about this extensively in How to Write a Novel, and there's a slightly less polished version in this blog post.

But whenever you have a lifeless character, you probably have a character who is just going through the motions instead of trying to make their own reality.

Imagine your character going through an average day

This is some of the best writing advice I've ever received, courtesy of A Suitable Boy author Vikram Seth: just imagine your character going through their day.

It's so simple, and yet so very effective.

Imagine this character waking up. Where are they? Are they in a bed? Are they in a cave in the woods? What's around them when they wake up? Are there posters on the walls? Are there paintings? What do they look like?

What do they do after they wake up? Do they shower? Do they shave? If they shave, how do they shave? Do they put on makeup? Are they in a rush? Do they take forever? What does their hair look like?

What do they eat for breakfast? Do they start by hunting for food? How do they do that? Is it prepared for them?

Who else is there? Does the character live with their parents? With a clan?

And so on and so on. By the time you're done, you'll know a remarkable amount about your character. This will also help with...

Know your characters' history

This may never even enter into the novel, and unless it's relevant to the plot, it shouldn't make it into the novel. (More on this in a subsequent post).

But you should know the basic history of every single one of your characters. Where were they born? Who were their parents? What was the arc of their life? How did they arrive at such a place in life that they're making it into the events of the novel?

The more important the character, the more you should know about their history. Catalog all of this in your series bible.

From there, you should have a reasonably three-dimensional character, and then it's a matter of making them come alive for your reader through good description and dialogue.

But that will be easy. At that point, your character will be fighting their way onto the page.

Art: Portrait of a Woman, Female Figure by Georges Braque


Tom Farr said...

This is great stuff. I especially like the part about knowing the character's history. It makes the character feel real.

tonyl said...

And the part about those characters "fighting their way onto the page”? Look out for it!

Sheryl said...

I have a whole checklist (on sale for $100 a pop...just kidding) that I rarely use any more, although once the character comes to life for me, I then go back and fill out the details.

I don't know why, but once I know what the character wants and once I've decided on their unique voice (often an intellectual decision until I've written the first paragraph in their voice, the character comes to life.

It's both strange and wonderful, and I wish I had known that this would happen for me before I started writing my first novel, but I guess I had to write my first novel to learn it!

Marilynn Byerly said...

Also, put yourself in your character's shoes. If you were being stalked by someone vicious, how would you walk to your car? How would your apartment look if you knew you might have to run, yet again, and leave everything behind? How would you treat relationships and jobs when the stalker is a danger to anyone close to you?

Small setting touches and character behavior for minor things can tell the reader a heck of a lot about your character.

wendy said...

Thanks for this helpful description of how to bring a character to life. I'm having a challenge with creating a mystical race who are supposedly a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from human beings. However, they are currently in a cursed state and not functioning at full power and awareness. My challenge is to imagine what creatures would be life who are more advanced than any I've ever known while at the same time having limitations they're not use to.

Actually, just from reading your post and writing this out I think I've gotten some ideas regarding mental and emotional control while possessing an innocent and child-like attitude to life.

Thanks, again, Nathan :)

Annie said...

You know characters have never seemed that difficult for me. It's the starting point for the story in my process. But I think about them a lot. Let them live in my head for a while, take notes, write conversations they have with other characters, wonder how they'd do whatever I'm doing at the moment. And let it all percolate before I start writing. So maybe I do all this stuff in my head ahead of time? Good advice.Thanks.

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