How to Make Your Characters Come to Life
by Carla Woody
One of the biggest challenges fiction writers have is to breathe life into the characters of their stories, to make them believable. This is particularly true if your book is character-driven. You want readers to connect with the story and those in it, to love or hate them. A reader of my latest book Portals to the Vision Serpent wrote to say how she couldn’t stand Sybilla, who features prominently in the novel—until she really understood her. Then she had great empathy. Even if the book is plot-driven, you want the characters’ actions to make some level of sense from their standpoint.
We all have a specialized, individual template that we live by. Here’s a quick review on how that happens. Your brain codes experiences you have. The original coding usually takes place early in life. The coding becomes your perceptions, which translates to the beliefs you have about yourself, others, the world in general, and what’s possible. This template also becomes the filter through which you experience your life. You develop strategies for thinking and living that further reinforce the original beliefs—those that support and those that get in your way. When something significant happens to disrupt the old beliefs, things can shift dramatically.
Your characters are no different. Here’s a way to uncover their templates by “stepping into” different perspectives.
1. From your “self” position as the writer, note how you experience different characters: the nonverbal signals, the way they speak, your own response to them.
2. Now taking each character at a time, imagine you can slide right into their body, look out of their eyes, become them—rather than witnessing them—and answer these questions: What is their family of origin like? Based on what they unconsciously ingested then, how do they experience their own identity, who they are? Note the trickle down effect: What beliefs were generated? What about capabilities? Resulting actions? How they experience their environment? This way you can really get inside the hearts and minds of the characters.
3. Then step back. By being a detached observer you get additional valuable information. Given what you discovered about your individual characters, now you can really get a bead on important dynamics between the major players and incorporate them into your writing.
By using a method like this, you also invite your reader to tag along through your writing, to undergo the same discovery and identify with different characters playing out the human condition, no different than the rest of us. We are all who we are based upon where we’ve been. But when something of great enough significance interjects itself triggering a change in one character…it also affects the others in close proximity. That’s how things get shaken up; the story becomes so much more interesting; the characters can grow in various ways.
Of course, you can use what I’ve written here as a guideline to explore aspects of your own life, not just writing. This is a brief primer toward self-discovery and relationship dynamics that I use with clients as a springboard for transformation. I’ve adapted the content of this post from my mentoring program
Navigating Your Lifepath, which guides folks on how to live through their deeply held values—and thrive.
Preston Johns Cadell is tormented. He attempts to outrun discontent and the void in his heart. His mother is hardly around. His father’s origins and disappearance are shrouded by family secrets. His sole remembrance of his father is flying through the stars nestled in his arms.
Any comfort Preston derives is from an unseen advisor who teaches him of the invisible world. Now he is coming of age. Memories arrive from long ago when a brown-skinned woman cared for him. But she, too, vanished. Finding the buried remains of his father’s altar, Preston must answer the draw to his destiny, to discover his lineage–even though he has no idea how or where it will lead him.
Portals to the Vision Serpent is a Hero’s Journey into the realms of shamanism and the Maya world. Interwoven are the struggles of indigenous peoples to preserve their way of life and tragedies that often come from misunderstandings. Through a family saga of dark wounds and mystery, spiritual healing unfolds.
The author donates 10% of profits from book sales to Kenosis Spirit Keepers, a 501(c)3 nonprofit she founded whose mission is to help preserve Native traditions in danger of decimation.
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Genre – Fiction / Coming of Age / Historical
Rating – PG
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