How to Create a Character that Lives and Breathes

Let's talk character creation, shall we? Whether you're writing a character or plot driven story, no one's going to want to read your book if your characters are lifeless. I mean, no matter what kind of party you go to, whether it's for work or for pleasure, it's the people who determine whether you have a good time, right? But how do you make sure readers have a good time at your "party"?


Have you ever planned a big party? Last year (oh gosh, it was almost two years ago! Man, I'm getting old), I had a big party to celebrate turning 50 years old. I have a lot of friends, but two very distinct "groups" of friends--my writer friends, and my church friends. Sure, I could invite them all, but would they get along? How would I sit them around the table? Would there be too many "class clowns"? Too many "over-talkers"? What about storytellers, drinkers, complainers, party animals? For the very best experience, you pick and choose your party list for maximum enjoyment for all. (And no, I didn't do this for my own party--I invited them all! Which created strange little microcosms that I don't really recommend, but that's a conversation for another time.)


Creating your cast is a lot like planning a party, with your reader as the guest of honor. Thinking of it that way, I'm sure you'll agree that who you "invite" is a big deal.


The problem with offering instruction on character creation, is that there are as many ways to approach it as there are writers. Sometimes each character presents a whole new challenge where a new approach is needed. So I'm going to share what methods I use most often.


Usually, I draft my story before I spend time on character creation. Then, before I dive into the first revision, I spend time developing my characters. I identify who are main, secondary and tertiary, and who, if any, I need to add to my cast.


For a main character, make sure they have...

  • a problem Because your readers have problems; because they are human and humans have flaws.

  • a want A want is something the hero has identified for themselves, and they usually think that once they get this want, all their problems will be solved.

  • a need Your character has a psychological/emotional wound festering beneath the surface and its your job to identify it and cure it by the end of the novel.


Once you know these things about your hero, you can use them to guide you as you develop their character, creating the person most likely to struggle in the story you created. Why should they struggle? Because that's what makes a story interesting!


For all your characters, whether they're your guest of honor/main character, or your party guests/cast, you'll want to consider the following for each of them:


What are your character's strengths?

There are numerous ways you can approach this. Since I love CliftonStrengths for myself, I use them for my characters, too. There are 34 strengths to choose from, and what's great about using this technique is that the strengths will often dictate the weakness, as well. For side characters, you may only need to choose one or two strengths, but your main character(s) should feel as real as you or I do, so choose 3-5 strengths.


For example, my top five strengths are:

  1. Relator I'm friendly, and like to include people.

  2. Positivity I prefer, and am quite good at, looking on the bright side of things.

  3. Maximizer I'm always striving to be my best, and I am good at seeing the potential in others, and in helping them maximize that potential.

  4. Strategic I'm very good at quickly spotting problems, and imagining new ways to proceed.

  5. Communication I find it easy to put my thoughts into words; I'm a good conversationalist and presenter.


What are your character's weaknesses?

No person is all good or all bad--hopefully you know this to be true. So the same has to hold for your characters, as well. Yes, give them strengths, but by golly, give them weaknesses too because it's their weakness that will make them most relatable to your reader.


You can create random weaknesses that you'd like to exploit in your story, or you can simply use the strengths to dictate the weakness by looking at how those strengths could go wrong.


Continuing with me as an example:

  1. Relator My friendliness and desire to include people can feel fake to some people and be downright annoying in the wrong situations.

  2. Positivity A lot of people have negative reactions to positivity. No one likes a "Pollyanna," kind of thing.

  3. Maximizer This can look like I'm a "try-hard" or a brown-noser. It can also feel insincere when I turn my "maximizer" on other people.

  4. Strategic Sometimes people just want you to listen, not to volunteer solutions to all their problems.

  5. Communication Sometimes I talk too much and don't know when to shut up and listen.

Next, the Character Sliding Scale taught by the folks at the Writing Excuses podcast offers a way to gauge how your character will likely behave in any given situation.


The slider measures:

  1. Competence How capable is the character?

  2. Proactivity How likely is the character to do something if the situation calls for it?

  3. Sympathy How much sympathy does the reader have for this character?


Generally speaking, if we want readers to connect with a character, we need to increase one or more of the sliders. Conversely, taking the slider to the negative side of the scale will make your character more unlikable. However, be thoughtful when moving the slider too far to one side--positive or negative. If your characters often fall on the extremes, they'll quickly lose their believability. That doesn't mean you can't use extremes, just be aware and understand why your character is that way.

I could probably go on and on about character creation (I've been working on a larger article for a little while now and it's up to seven pages, I think!), but let me leave you with one more super awesome must-do exercise that's my personal favorite.


Character Voice Exploration

I highly recommend (so highly that I considered saying you must) that you take a bit of time for each of your main characters and even (if you're so inclined) for your secondary characters, to free write in their voice.


Free writing is what you do when you write in your journal, or write "just for the heck of it," except in this case, you're going to write a few paragraphs from the point of view of your character. Don't overthink this, just let them talk through your fingers.


If that's not comfortable, ask your character questions, then let them answer. However, there's a trick to this--ask them questions that hurt. Asking them about their favorite foods or how they like to dress isn't going to get you to that creative flow this exercise is meant to activate.


Asking your character how and why they hurt, however, will produce magic.


Ask why they get angry easily. Why they don't like commitment. Why they broke up with their last girlfriend, or didn't say yes to that proposal. The more you dive into the heart of your character, the more easily and readily that character's voice will emerge.


I know it sounds wackadoodle, but trust me, this works.


For some reason, asking emotional characters of your characters is the quickest way to access their voice--which is the unique way a person speaks and narrates. And in case you weren't clear on this, even though you're the writer, it's your main character's voice that should be telling their own story.


So! Do your planning and preparation as you create your characters, but don't forget to explore their voice. No matter how well you've created them, if you don't know their voice then they're not going to live and breathe on the page--and that's the magic that will set your characters (and by extension, your story) apart from all the rest.