Life into Characters
by Sandy Tritt
Giving life to a character is one of the most rewarding parts of being
a writer. It is also one of the most difficult. Too many times in fiction,
we witness the "cardboard" or one-dimensional character. Real characters,
those we can visualize and root for and love, aren't created with the snap
of a finger. Instead, they develop over time, over many hours of time
spent together. Surely, writing is a spiritual endeavor. The closest any
of us will ever get to God is by our desire to create another human. But
once we do, we find out something God discovered years ago: once you
breathe life into a being, he takes on a life of his own.
I like to think of the development of characters as being a process, a
life cycle, instead of a moment of genius creation. My most requested
workshop is "The Life Cycle of a Character," which breaks getting to know
a character into several phases.
CONCEPTION is the initial spark, the idea that originally causes us to
want to create this character. Sometimes it is generated by plot -- we
know a story we want to tell, and we need a character to tell it by.
Sometimes we see a setting -- a country porch with a dilapidated swing or
an isolated island -- that makes us wonder what kind of person would live
there. Sometimes we run across a photograph that sparks our imagination,
and we create personality to go with the physical features. Or sometimes
we see a possession -- an antique spinning wheel or an outrageously
expensive emerald ring, and wonder the type of person who would own such a
thing. Whatever the cause, a character is conceived by an idea.
During the conception phase, we need to start assigning characteristics
(knowing that once our character takes on a life of his own, he may change
any of our assumptions about him). But, to get us started, we still go
through the paces. You may find it helpful to use a Character Trait Chart
to assign physical description and background information. Regardless, we
need to know basic facts about the person: His name? Age? Sex? Marital
Status? Occupation/Social Class? Physical Description? How does he feel
about himself? Who are his friends? How intelligent or educated is he?
What does he sound like? Smell like? What is the very first thing you
notice about this character? And on and on.
BIRTH is when we pick up that limp character that we assigned physical
attributes and psychological traits to, hold him in our arms, and breathe
the breath of life into him from our very own souls. It is also the
turning point -- his actual birth -- and we cease having absolute control
The first breath of life is when our character has a goal or "character
statement." What, more than anything else in the world, does this
character want? Some examples from my characters are:
To become wealthy so the love of my life will return my love.
To have fun.
To be the best teacher I can possibly be, and to give my students the
desire to continue their education.
To keep my family together.
To break into the Rock 'n Roll charts and become a rock star.
To know and do God's will.
As you can see, a character's goal can be as deep or as vapid as the
individual. Note that for some characters, this statement may be a life
goal, but for others, it may change as the character matures. Regardless,
this is what motivates our character, and we must understand this
motivation if we are to continue to add depth to his personality.
Part of a character's birth is the "layering" of personality traits. I
have found that a good book of the Zodiac that includes both star signs
and moon signs (such as Complete Book of the Zodiac, Sterling) is a
"cheap" way to add dimension to a character. Also, I search psychology
books for complementary traits. The Writer's Guide to Character Traits
(Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.) is excellent for this, suggesting, for
example, that alcoholics often possess irrational fears and suspicions or
that a criminal skyjacker often has a religious mother who made him her
confidant, that bed wetters are often aggressive and have difficulty
adapting to new situations. These are the types of traits that add
dimension to our characters.
ADOLESCENCE is when our character begins interacting with his
environment. How does the setting of the story affect him? What is going
to happen to him, and how will he react to what happens to him? What
conflict or fatal flaw will prevent him from achieving his goal? How will
he overcome this conflict or flaw? How will he grow?
MATURITY is the final fleshing-out of a character. We now add body
language (be sure to study a good body language text to understand how
posture, facial expressions and mannerisms affect the way we are received
by others) and dialogue to our character. We need to give him a
distinctive voice, not just externally, but the way he will think in
internal dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, we need to understand his
emotional makeup. To fully understand our character, we need to mentally
try him out in several emotional scenes so that we can know how he will
DEATH.. Great characters never die. Never.
So -- giving life to a character is much like being a parent. We do the
best we can for our characters, give them years of our lives, our love and
understanding, but the day comes when they rebel and say, "Enough. Let me
be me," and we must allow them to live their own lives. And that is when
we've truly given life.
(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved,
except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes
(such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the
url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in
conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt
for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.
- First ten pages free, and, for a limited time, all additional pages at
50% off the regular rate of $2.00 per page. Just mention Publishing
New Writers Newsletter (January, 2002).
- Critiques by Sandy Tritt
- Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach.
Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the
problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose.
More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish
establishing long-term relationships with other writers.
- Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the
"constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to
destroy your confidence.
- Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and
suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.
- Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know
where your strengths are.
- Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character
development or other areas that could be strengthened.
- Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will
include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue,
special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view
and any other areas particular to your work.
- If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your
areas of weakness.
- Answer any questions you may have via email.
- Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.
For Sandy's success stories, see
Write Sandy at firstname.lastname@example.org
(See Sandy's article in the left column.)
This is Dianne Ochiltree's
site for children, parents,
teachers and writers for
young readers. Dianne is an
author of books for young
readers (birth to teenage)
and she is also a children's
book reviewer. She's been
writing professionally for
over 25 years---about 18
years in public
and the last 7 years as a
children's writer. Dianne
has two books published to
date, with Scholastic and
with Simon & Schuster.
http://tritt.wirefire.com The Inspiration for Writers website offers help and encouragement to writers of all levels. Tips and Techniques give practical advice about frequent writing blunders. The Writer's Prayer, inspirational quotes, and essays about the writing life add insight and inspiration. The Fiction Showcase offers short stories for the reader's enjoyment. And, for those serious about improving their writing skills, manuscript critiques and coaching services are available. Visit http://tritt.wirefire.com today!
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Training - Pardon Me...
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Publishing New Writers,
January, 2002 (no.301)
Editor Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.
Fax (847) 428-8974.
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