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Create Vivid, Memorable
Breathe Life into Your Fictional People
By Lucia Zimmitti
If your readers don't care about your characters,
you're sunk. Readers don't necessarily have to like all
of your characters, but they have to care about what
happens to your main character, or there's no reason for
them to keep reading.
Which means you have to care about your characters,
and you have to know them, maybe even better than you
know yourself. To create characters that live and breathe
on the page, you must first create characters that live
in breathe in your psyche. This is why you need to know
much more about them than you'll ever have to include in
your completed story.
One way to achieve this authentic character history
is to put your main character(s) in as many real-life
situations as possible. And because thinking is only the
first stage and can only get you so far, write these
situations out, considering all sorts of details.
When you can imagine your character in different
places and with different people, beyond people and
places your story requires, you make your fictional
people exponentially more realistic within the confines
of your own story.
Start by deciding on the basics: your main
character's date of birth and favorite things (such as
food, color, activity, place, song, movie, book, friend,
family member, possession, game, animal/pet, amusement
park ride, season). Remember: these are details you'll
want to work out, even though they may never need to be
discussed in your story.
The basics is great place to start, but to create
the most vivid, memorable characters, you'll need to
stretch your imagination and go beyond the basics.
The following exercises will get you started in
developing rich, believable, interesting characters.
Choose the exercises you're most drawn to, and really let
yourself go-don't worry about polished sentences or
grammar or mechanics. (You can't plumb the depths of your
imagination when you're worried about comma placement.)
STRENGTHS/WEAKNESSES: List emotional, intellectual, and
physical strengths and weaknesses for your character.
Include any special talents or aptitudes. Get your hands
on an IQ test and take it from your character's
perspective, not yours. (Tricky, but fun and worthwhile.)
AT OUR HOUSE:
Imagine a family meal at your main character's dinner
table. Write a short descriptive scene revealing the
average evening meal at your main character's house.
Now revisit that meal scene and add tension. (After
all, tension makes fiction go 'round.) Perhaps the school
principal called Mom that afternoon and therefore Mom has
some serious lecturing to do (or some serious
disappointment to relate). Or maybe Dad lost his job that
day and -- over meatloaf and green beans -- tells the
family that they'll have to be uprooted (again). Perhaps
the teen daughter brings home a dinner date who only Mom
(an undercover detective) recognizes as a convicted
The point is: think of an emotionally-charged piece
of information that will make this meal very different
from the one above. Write this scene, paying attention to
WOULD S/HE DO?
Imagine an ethical dilemma that your character finds
himself/herself in. Maybe your character was offered a
job promotion or a large bonus based on a task s/he
didn't carry out alone. Does s/he tell the truth and
share the credit with the colleague or keep quiet about
it and bask in the glory solo? Choose a moral quandary,
plunk your character it in, and write a short, thorough,
descriptive scene. Be sure to tap into your character's
thoughts, fears, conflicts, and ultimately how s/he
arrived at the final decision.
three diary/journal entries from your main character's
point of view, fully in his/her voice and in his/her
head. Make the entries occur on different days and have
them deal with different events and emotions. Try to
include a whole range of feelings-joy, sorrow, rage,
uncertainty, anxiety, to name a few.
up your character's last physical exam report, as it
would be written by the family physician. Include all
relevant details, along with any physical complaints the
character might mention.
Then write up some clinical notes from a
psychologist who has been seeing your character in
therapy. Perhaps your character has discussed his/her
worst fear with the doctor. Reveal as much background to
that fear as you can: when and why it began, how it's
manifested, how your character struggles to cope with it.
character writes you (the author) a letter, instructing
you quite specifically in how s/he wants to be portrayed
in the book. Make your character's personality come
through loud and clear in this letter. Try to set
yourself aside as you write it.
Get your hands on a job application (or create one of
your own), and fill it out from your character's point of
view. Include work history, schooling, references, as
well as the character's statement explaining why s/he
would be perfect for the job.
Always remember to have fun with these. The minute
you're not having fun, stop. The looser and more relaxed
you are when you try these exercises, the more you'll get
from them. You'll discover things about your character
you never thought you knew, which translates to a more
fully realized, believable person alive in your story.
discover more ways to infuse your writing with life,
visit http://ManuscriptRx.com and sign up for "Write
Through It," a free, monthly e-newsletter that
offers tips on writing more clearly and effectively.
Lucia Zimmitti, a writing coach and independent
editor, is a member of the Society of Children's Book
Writers and Illustrators and the Editorial Freelancers
Association. Her fiction and poetry have been published
in various national literary journals, and she has taught
writing at the high school and college levels.
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