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Bringing Characters to Life

By Henry McLaughlin

A story without people is not a story. I’m not sure what it is but it’s not a story. You can have a great plot and beautiful settings, but if your characters are not alive, you just have words on a page.

There are numerous tools available to help us create characters. Meyer-Briggs, Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages, character interview forms, character description sheets, family history templates, etc. They all have some value in identifying your characters.

I believe your character doesn’t come alive until he or she is in the story, interacting with other characters, striving to achieve goals. This striving creates conflict. This conflict brings both your character and your story alive.

When your character comes to life in the story, be prepared for most of the preliminary work to go out the window. And be prepared, if you’re an outliner, for your carefully-crafted story to go in new directions. The story, the conflicts, the setbacks, will change your character and reveal more of what’s beneath her surface.

Believable characters have dark secrets, hidden ambitions, fears, dreams, hopes, and desires. In my current work, I didn’t know my heroine was claustrophobic until it came out in a scene. None of my prep work revealed this. Why? Because it wasn’t important in the prep work. It wasn’t until I had her in a scene, in action, that the fear of being closed in manifested itself. Her fear of heights wasn’t revealed until she had to climb a tree to escape a hungry tiger.

People have needs for relationship, significance and security. These need to be revealed in the story.

Randy Ingermanson teaches that to create a believable character, try to give her at least two core values. And somewhere in the story, have them conflict. In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, Michael Archer is the protagonist. His core values are: One, nothing is more important than keeping his word; and, two, nothing is more important than protecting human life. At the climax, these values conflict where to keep his promise to a condemned man, Michael faces having to kill someone.

James Scott Bell, in Conflict & Suspense, suggests giving you’re a character a yearning, something they want but don’t have, “something without which a person feels life will be incomplete.” It can be something the hero brings into the story so he already has trouble when the story opens. This yearning will give him a store of actions that are unpredictable, creating potential conflict in every scene, and creating interest in the reader from the outset.

The more we let our characters express and reveal themselves in the story, the more vibrant, complex, and fascinating they will be, and the more they will keep the reader hooked and turning pages.

Henry McLaughlinHenry McLaughlin’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. He lives in North Texas where he serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. Henry leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers.

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