Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There’s a secret to writing strong characters. It’s not about perfect dialogue, vivid description, or stirring emotion. Those are all important, but the most essential ingredient in making a character feel alive is an author’s insight into human nature. Without that, you’ll gravitate to stock characters and melodrama. Why do people do what they do? Why are their motives so often hidden and seemingly the opposite of their actions? What’s going on in their minds, beneath the façade they present to the world? What makes one person noble and another self-serving? And what role do a person’s backstory and environment play in shaping these aspects of their personality?An author’s most vital tool is their insight into human nature.Click To Tweet
Some of us are more intuitive about understanding human nature than others, but anyone can gain more insight with a little intentionality. Here are a few tips to get you started on the path to being more aware of the human dramas unfolding all around you and how utilizing what you see can make your characters come alive.
Be a people-watcher
If you want deeper insight into human nature, start by observing people. Be a people-watcher. Go sit at a coffee shop or restaurant or mall and just watch people. What do you notice about their interactions with others? Can you pick up different styles and patterns in dialogue? What are people like when they think no one is observing them? Can you discern or imagine motives in perfect strangers?
Now, put your character in this situation (or one like it if they live in a different time/place). Imagine what he might do. Play out who she might be talking to and what they might be talking about. How does he feel at this moment and why? Does this place or activity bring out any insecurities or fears in her? What do they want?
Asking these kinds of questions is a great way to get to the heart of who your characters are, what they want, fear, hope for, etc., and the forces that shaped them. The more information you gather from your real-world observations, the more material you’ll have for constructing your fictional characters.
To take this activity one step further, consider interviewing your characters. That’s a more structured approach to filling out their backstory and working out the intricate details of their lives.
Get inside the mind of your character
You’ve done some research, gathered material, and you’ve started writing your character. Now, how can you go deeper? Making a character come alive isn’t just about the external aspects of how they look and act and speak. It’s about the motives, the hopes, fears, and dreams that drive a person.
To make this real on the page, you have to get inside your character’s mind and heart. Put yourself in their shoes as much as you possibly can. One exercise you can do is to write your character’s backstory through short scenes or an outline. If this material never actually makes it into the book, that’s okay. This is an exercise to help you more deeply understand this character. You’ll be amazed at the authenticity this brings to your writing. It’s hard to write authentic characters if you don’t first know and understand where they come from, what they want, what they fear, and the forces of their personal history that have shaped them.
If you think about it, doesn’t it make sense? Again, writing strong characters is about exploring human nature, and we are deeply complex creatures. We aren’t shallow stereotypes or stock characters. Each of us is so uniquely shaped by our biology, our environment, and upbringing; we’re swayed by our deepest desires and plagued by fears that inform how we move through the world every day.
Exploit the power of individuality
Individuality is perhaps the most powerful tool you have in constructing characters. It’s the outward consequence of all that complexity we just talked about, and if you can harness it in your writing, your characters will live and breathe on the page.
I recently wrote about how this power of individuality can help authors write authentic grief scenes, and the same idea applies here. It can be so tempting to just rely on stereotypes and surface emotions, but constructing individualized emotions and behaviors will make all the difference. Everything about your characters has roots in their backstory and all the forces that shaped them. Nothing is arbitrary, and they’ve been alive for quite some time. So, how can you tap into that lifetime of history?
Take all that you’ve learned about your character so far and use it to create nuanced dialogue, behavior, and thoughts arising from their very unique experience. Where you need them to behave in a certain way, ask yourself how to make their behaviour personal and specific to their views and nature. Tinker with dialogue so it’s something only they could have said – personality isn’t something to reveal in a crisis, or in a filler scene, it’s something to express in every available facet of character behavior. This is the way to avoid dull and lifeless characters; this is the way to bring fictional people more fully to life.Don’t ‘save’ a character’s personality for filler material – refer back to it whenever possible.Click To Tweet
Get reader feedback
The thing about reading human nature is it’s subjective, right? If you’re not sure that what you’ve done will be successful, run it by beta readers or workshop it during your critique group. See how it’s received by your audience.
When you get their feedback, don’t just stop at revising your manuscript. Use their advice to figure out where your insight is weak. Where do your powers of observation need more work? Is your dialogue stiff? Spend more time listening to conversations around you. Does your character’s body language come across as awkward? Pay closer attention to how people around you carry themselves, and try to catch unique mannerisms. Before you know it, this increased awareness will show up in your writing.Mine the real world for character details like mannerisms and patterns of speech.Click To Tweet
Bring characters alive to enhance your story
Writing authentic, complex, unique characters is hard work. It requires a deep understanding and intuition of human behavior, motives, and the forces of cause and effect at work in people’s lives. But if you do the difficult work of observing the human dramas all around you and applying what you learn to your fictional world, your characters will come to life right before your eyes. And you can bet it will make all the difference to your readers.
If you want to read more about writing three-dimensional characters, check out How To Write A Damn Good Man and What Makes A Strong Female Character – It’s Not What You Think, or for involving inner-life in outer behavior, try How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises.
Have you ever observed something in the real world that’s helped you bring a character alive? Let me know in the comments.