Breathing Life Into Fictional Characters


Characters will never “breathe” if the writer persists in viewing them as “fictional.” Yes, yes, I know, in truth they actually are, but hear me out. For something to “breathe,” it must have life, and that which is fictional is, by nature, lifeless. It then follows that if one begins from the point of view that the character they are creating is fictional, by the time it reaches the page it will have no more life than a stone.

Fictional characters, being as they are devoid of life, have no issues. Pristine, unspoiled, and unblemished they traipse through the netherworld of creative writing exuding fantastic, idealized qualities rarely, if ever, seen in the real world. By contrast, the character in the following paragraph has some issues. She is flawed, perhaps even fatally so. And yet she is compelling because the fabric of her world, like that of our own, is a bit wrinkled:

“He was the only man she had ever loved. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, as honesty compelled her to admit that she had loved many men. Perhaps it was better to say that of all the men she’d loved in her relatively short life he was, well, one of them. Hedging. She did that a lot. She’d set her sights on a man, declare him to be just the’ one’ for her only to have her vision drawn to someone else as soon as the boredom set in, something that seemed to be happening with alarming frequency these days.”

Too often we tidy up our characters, and the landscape on which they trod, leaving our readers to deal with an unreality that would challenge even the most dedicated escapist. The truth of the matter is in fiction, as in real life, our characters do not always make the right choices, and quite often those wrong choices produce tragic consequences. If you want to breathe life into your characters, start by letting them suffer the consequences of those choices for it is the suffering that builds strength of character.

While we are all begotten in pleasure, we are born in pain and pain tends to follow us down the days of our lives. It is the one defining and unifying element of the human experience. We would do well to remember that, as we craft and shape our characters.

Most successful writers I have met all confess to having intimate relationships with their characters. Like old friends, they know them well. Some authors have been known to weep upon completing a manuscript knowing that with the completion they have to say goodbye to people who have become close friends. It is this very intimacy, perhaps more than any other single factor that will produce characters whose life force literally leaps from the page.

Next, I want to address the question of dialogue. Wooden dialogue will squeeze the life out of even the most robust character. Here’s something that has served me well over the years: sit in a public place, say a Starbucks for example, and just listen to conversations for an hour. It is educational on several levels not the least of which is the fact that most people have horrible grammar, even those who appear to be well educated. Unless you are writing for a literary publishing house, unchain your character’s tongues! Let them speak in sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and non-sequiturs. Rejoice in interruptions and for heaven’s sake, allow them to truncate to their heart’s delight.

One final thought. First century middle-easterners who had to travel at night would often strap small clay lamps to their sandals. The light, while being quite feeble, nevertheless provided sufficient illumination to see just enough of the road ahead to take the next step. In this manner, they could travel five feet or fifty, one mile or ten. The point being that when you start you do not have to know every step your character is going to take on their journey through your story.

You just have to know the next step.

Every character has the capacity to vibrate with life if you as the writer will allow it.

Breathe that life into them.

They deserve it…and so do your readers.

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