Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How To: Give Your Characters PERSONALITY

Last week I was teaching some younger students of mine how to infuse their written characters with personality. I do this with an exercise called personification, which is the writing drill of giving human characteristics to inanimate objects. In some cases, this is not a drill at all. Look at animated movies such as The Brave Little Toaster - every object in that movie is infused with human characteristics although they are only toasters, vacuum cleaners, lamps and radios. 
The exercise got me to thinking: how do we transfer viable, realistic human emotions into our characters as professional writers? What makes our main players real? 
The answer, of course, is to give your characters a realistic setting, a unique voice and a clear motivation. Here are a few things I do when I'm creating a character: 

  • What's their backstory? If you want your characters to be real, you should know where they come from, and where they are going. How old are they? Where did they grow up? What were their parents like? What shaped their personalities? This is not information that you need to dump on your readers - it's information for yourself as a writer. If you know the story behind your character, you will be able to write about them authentically. You'll know why they react to certain situations in certain ways. It will make sense to you, and when you sprinkle in hints of their backstory into your novel, it makes the character that much more believable. 
  • Give them a voice. If you're a writer, you may have noticed how characters tend to develop a very unique, very demanding voice of their own. Their thoughts are no longer your thoughts - they are theirs. What you need to do is retain your own writing voice while letting your characters talk. You are the narrator, they are the actors. Let them act. Let them be who they want to be. 
  • Give them motivation. Something that I frequently stress to my writing students is that every character must have a motivation for a story to be strong. They must want something deeply, and that desire will be the driving force throughout all of their adventures. Whether they're after a treasure chest or inner peace doesn't matter. What matters is that they have motivation to accomplish their goals - and oftentimes this motivation comes from their past, which brings you around to developing a strong backstory. 
  • Give them a "marker." When I come up with new characters, I like to give them something I call "markers." These are one or two identifiable traits or physical attributes that make them easy to remember. For example, one of the newest characters in my series, Manny, is constantly wearing a weathered, almost comical flight cap. It's something that readers will identify with the character - and that is a part of his personality, as well. Sometimes this marker can be a physical trait, such as a scar on their cheek or an eyepatch. With my main protagonist, Cassidy Hart, her marker is her wild, curly red hair. Chris Young's marker is his ponytail - and in the first book, it was a cobra tattoo that wound across his bicep, too. You get my point. Give them one or two quirks that make them interesting and personable. 
  • Give them hardships. If you really want to see your characters grow, give them an impossible situation. True personality often shows under stress and pressure, and that is how you can find out what your characters are really like. How do they react? How would you react? How would they, based on their backstory, handle a certain situation? 
The important thing to remember is to keep your characters as realistic as possible. We are humans, therefore we like to identify with human characters, which are always flawed. No one is perfect, and that is why giving your character a flaw or weakness is a must. Simply ask yourself the question: 
Does this sound real? 
And if the answers is kind of or no, then it's time for a revision. Just saying! 
* wink *

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Get fictional - it's fun! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to see you again soon!