Creating Characters That Live and Breathe

A common complaint from editors is that a writer’s characters are flat. What exactly does that mean? 

It may help to think of it in this way: A flat character is one that is lying down, as though dead. It is a character who is not standing up, who is not alive and breathing and walking. 

From an artistic point of view, a flat character is two dimensional, lacking full substance. A flat character has only a front and a back, nothing inside to give it life. 

So how do we avoid creating flat characters? How do we create full, well-rounded ones? Here are a few tips: 

1) Know your character. One of the main reasons for flat characters is the author’s lack of in-depth knowledge about his character. Before you can create a well-rounded character, you must know her. You must know her greatest fear, her greatest dream, her greatest weakness. How do you learn these things? Simply. You ask your character. Then expect her to answer your questions. The first thought that pops into your head after you ask the question will be your answer. 

2) Understand your character’s motivation. Once you know your character, you will understand what makes him tick and what motivates him to do whatever he does. Knowing your character’s motivation will also help you to forward the plot. A character will respond to life out of who she is. When you know your character, you will know how she will respond to every situation. 

3) Respect your character. A character is a person in his own right. This means that your character will not always do what you want her to do. She has a mind of her own. Respect that. Let her do her tihng. Follow her where she wants to take you. If you have gotten to know your character, and if you have come to understand her motivation, you will trust her to tell you her story. Trust flows out of respect, so respect your character enough to trust her. 

While there are other techniques you can use to create living characters, starting with the three techniques above will take you a long way toward making your characters leap off the page.

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2 thoughts on “Creating Characters That Live and Breathe

  1. Yes, ask your characters anything. They WILL answer. And if you write the answers in their voice, you’ll get clearer answers.

    I was shocked to find out my antagonist was lonely during a writing exercise where the protagonist asked the antagonist questions.

    Who ever thinks the “bad guys” have feelings? But mine does. Of course, she’s not entirely bad and I’ve worked an interesting character arc for her. But still, if I hadn’t asked questions, I wouldn’t have found this small, but important thing.

    June 26, 2010 at 1:17 PM