Bringing Fictional Characters to Life

Getting to know your characters was all about fleshing them out on paper by writing profiles, or mini-biographies. The idea was to make them live and breathe in your own imagination, thus enabling you to write about them with authority.

This next stage is about helping the readers to get to know the fictional characters as well as you now do.

More specifically, it's about revealing characters gradually to readers by working out what you will say about them in Chapter One, in Chapter Two, and so on.

Don't say everything there is to say about a character in their very first scene. Do that and you'll have two problems...

  • The scene will suffer from a serious case of information overload.
  • You'll have little scope to develop the character, preferably in unexpected ways, as the story progresses.

You have created a living, breathing human being in your imagination. They may be fictional, but they feel real to you. You've come up with plenty of vivid, original, interesting details to help you bring them to life on the page.

That's great.

But just because they are real to you, don't think that the best way to bring them to life for the reader is to tell them everything you know about the character on page one.

You must reveal the characters' traits gradually to the readers. Start off with a very broad brush and paint a stereotype. Then, in the chapters that follow...

  • sometimes add details which confirm what the readers already know about the character
  • and sometimes make the readers see the character in a new light, by providing them with unexpected details.

Why this gradual revelation?

Because just like with a stranger at a dinner party, it's how we get to know people in the real world.

When we meet someone new at a dinner party, it will take us all evening to get to know him. And if we become friends with the man, we will continue to learn new things about him every time we meet, for years to come.

Learning everything there is to know about him within the first half-hour just doesn't happen - and it shouldn't happen in novels either. So...

Readers of fiction should learn about characters in much the same way that they'd get to know someone in the real world. Gradually. And in a very specific order, too...

1. How They Look

How would you get to know this stranger at dinner? Well, you'd first catch a sight of him across the room when you first walk in. And shallow though it is, you'd judge him on how he looks - his face, clothes and so on.

So that is the first step in revealing characters to the readers: describing their physical appearance.

Let's say that the stranger is a man in his late-fifties...

  • Is he five feet tall and almost as wide, or so lanky that he has to stoop when he walks under the chandelier?
  • Is he wearing low-slung jeans with rips in the knees, or a three-piece tangerine suit?
  • Does he have a ring on every finger and one through his nose, or is he wearing white silk gloves?

Your opinion of him will be very different in each case (particularly when you compare how he looks to all the other guests).

Yes, it's true that looks are only superficial, but that doesn't make them any less important in characterization. First impressions count, both in the real world and to readers of novels.

First impressions are frequently wrong, too, so don't be afraid to misguide the readers at the outset. Characters can be made to seem one way... only to come across completely differently when readers learn more about them.

2. What They Do

The next thing we judge a person on is what they do - any small or large actions which offer further clues as to their character. Actions are a far more powerful characterization tool than physical description, simply because actions are a far more reliable indicator of a person's true nature.

Back to our man. What is the first thing you see him do as you watch him across the room?...

  • Pocket a silver ashtray when he thinks no one is looking?
  • Kick the owner's dog?
  • Take out a hip flask and pour a slug of brandy into his champagne?

Any of these actions would be all the more powerful if they went against the impression we initially formed of them based on their looks.

3. What They Say

So far, we've dealt with physical description (how they look) and action (what they do). Next up is dialogue - or what they say.

Sooner or later, you will get talking to the man (hey, you're a curious fiction writer!) How he speaks, both what he says and how he says it, will cause you to further refine your opinion of him...

  • Is his voice deep or high-pitched? (Does this fit his physical appearance or is it unexpected?)
  • Is he interested in you or does he talk only about himself?
  • Is he easy to talk to, like you've known each other for years, or do you find yourself struggling for things to say?

Again, you'll have a far more nuanced view of the man once you've started to talk to him - just as readers of fiction will judge a character differently after they've heard them speak.

4. What They Think

In the real world, the only way we can truly discover what somebody thinks is when they express an opinion. Their body language reveals a lot, too. Even then, we can't be 100% certain what's happening deep down.

In fiction, readers have the advantage of direct access to a viewpoint character's mind. It's called interior monologue.

Make good use of that. And if there's a contradiction between what they say they think and what they actually think, so much the better - it adds depth to their character.

You'll have noticed that the six ways of characterizing begins with the superficial (how they look) and becomes progressively more complex. How the man at the party looks, acts and speaks gives you plenty of clues about what makes him tick. But it isn't until you get a glimpse inside his mind that you really get to know him.

And guess what? The more opinionated a character is, the more interesting they become.

5. The Opinions of Others

Back to the party...

You've been talking to the man for quite some time now. You're even starting to like him - a lot. But then later, when you're fetching a couple of fresh drinks, another guest corners you and asks if you want rescuing from that "awful man" - and suddenly you aren't so confident.

The opinions of other people, both in the real world and in novels, are important.

Sometimes we believe that we know a person well, but then somebody else offers an opinion on that person that runs against all of our assumptions. And whether this new opinion turns out to be fair or not, we can't help but re-evaluate our beliefs.

6. What They Want - and Why

In novel writing, characters must always want something - the major characters should, anyway. If they don't want something, you simply don't have a story on your hands.

And from the point of view of characterization, telling a reader what a character wants - and, more importantly, why they want it - is one of the biggest weapons there is.

Let's imagine now that our man is a fictional character in a novel. You're no longer a guest at this party, but a reader of the novel in which he plays the central role.

How he looks, what he does, what he says, what he thinks and what others think of him are all important ways of bringing him to life for the reader. But give him a goal, and some motivation for wanting what he does, and he will really come to life on the printed page.

So, what does the man want - not right now, at the party, but in the novel as a whole?...

  • To find love again following the death of his wife?
  • To trace his long-lost son?
  • To save his failing business?

Let's say he wants to find his son. An even more important question to answer, in terms of bringing him to life for the readers, is why does he want it...

  • Is it because he has terminal cancer and wants to make peace with his past before he dies?
  • Or is it because he's discovered that his son has inherited a fortune and the man wants his cut?

A reader's opinion of him will be very different in each case.

Wrapping Up

And that is how you go about working each character into a story, chapter by chapter. Here are three essential points to take away...

1) The order in which you reveal a character's personality to a reader is important. The six ways above are not set in stone, but always try to move from the superficial traits to the more defining ones.

2) Never say everything there is to say about a character in the first chapter. Spread out their character development over the entire novel.

3) Move from the flat to the round, from the one-dimensional to the multi-dimensional. Start with a vivid stereotype (this will stop the character from being boring). As the story progresses, continue to add traits which both confirm this stereotype and, most importantly, which work against it.