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Creating Characters Who Breathe

by Robin Lee Hatcher

I love discovering the inner workings of my characters. I love it when they come to life and begin telling me their stories. I love it when they become my companions and my friends.

Writers often fall into two camps: those who develop their stories around plots and those who develop their stories around characters. But remember, a strong plot without living, breathing, believable characters cannot succeed, no matter how brilliant it is. If readers don’t care about the people in your stories, they’re not going to care what happens to them (i.e. your plot). Fall in love with your characters. Find out what makes them tick. Then they can tell you their story. After all, your characters are the ones living it, not you.

My favorite way to discover who my characters are is to use what is called “stream of consciousness writing.” I write a first person autobiography of the characters, starting from their birth and writing right up to the time the story begins. I let my imagination take over and write whatever pops into my head, things like, “When I was five, I tried to fly off the roof of the garage while pretending to be Superman. I broke my arm in two places.” I believe most writer’s block occurs because a writer doesn’t yet know her character’s “character.”

Remember that everyone has the potential within them for every kind of human behavior-from good to bad and everything in between. Get in touch with those emotions and the emotions of those around you. Become a student of human behavior. Learn to empathize. It’s one of the most important abilities a writer of fiction must have. Cultivate an ability to see things from different points of view. As you mature as a writer, you will do well to study the way people really are–not what they ought to be.
Bride for all seasons
Every strong personality trait in one of your characters must have a reason, something in his past (whether distant or not) that provides the force moving him in that direction. If you’re forcing a character to do something because your plot won’t work without it, then you’re in trouble. Forget about your reason for your hero to do it. What’s his reason?

Your heroine must be motivated by something that is of utmost importance to her. If she is going to risk her fortune, her family, her life to gain something, she’d better have a good reason, some reason that her goal is worth so very much. Think of motivation in cost/benefit terms. No matter how complex or peculiar your character’s desire may be, you can make it credible for her to seek it if you are able to show that to her it’s worth whatever it costs.

Don’t short change your secondary characters. Remember that, as far as they’re concerned, they are the center of the story and your hero and heroine are merely minor characters. Secondary characters’ motivations and actions must ring as true as your central characters. Each secondary character should be so real to you that, if you chose, you could write a story about them.

Take the time to develop and understand your characters. If you do, they will never fail you. Your readers will see them as real people living real lives, and they will love you for it.

robin lee hatcherBest-selling novelist Robin Lee Hatcher (author of 70 books) is known for her heartwarming and emotionally charged stories of faith, courage, and love. Robin’s new release is A Bride for All Seasons, a mail order bride collection written with Margaret Brownley, Debra Clopton, and Mary Connealy.

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3 Responses to Creating Characters Who Breathe

  1. This is a great article Robin.

    Developing your characters takes time and effort but the outcome is always worth it. I devote many hours to researching my characters so that I can understand their needs, wants and motivations for doing things.

    Doing research gives me the knowledge and foundation to create a character that is tangible and believable.

  2. Great points. My stories are plot driven with the characters in the driver’s seat.