Four months ago I attended a workshop done by an acquaintance of mine named Dave Wolverton. You may have heard of him; he is an enormously successful science fiction and fantasy writer. His presentation was about how to bring characters into snapping, memorable life. The ideas shared therein reinforced some principles that many of us are already aware of. These principles, if followed well, can help fiction writers create characters so alive that you can hear, smell and see them as they step off the page and into the reader’s heart.
Dialogue is the most powerful tool that can be used to breathe life into fictional characters. This doesn’t mean that you need to try to find an accent for your character. What this means is that each character needs to have a distinct voice that becomes obvious as dialogue goes on. In order to be able to do this effective dialogue, writers must listen well to the world around them. As they listen, fiction writers will get an idea of the myriad differences in voice around them.
Thus, perhaps one character will end each sentence that they say with rising intonation. Another character may always use the tag, “Y’know?” at the end of their statements. A third character might always use “Uh” and other fillers. When you add distinctive movements, tics or habitual twitches to the dialogue, the character will become less a paper-flat action advancer and more of a dynamic, round cathartic person who changes events.
Characters must be distinct. One criticism I received after a friend read my first book was that he could never keep the two main characters distinct in his mind. This means that I had not made dialogue distinctive, in addition to attitudes, posture and approach to life. Think about it. If you spend several hours with two or three different people, you will pretty much always be able to tell them apart.
Therefore, it becomes necessary for a serious fiction writer to establish characters and their distinctive features and characteristics in their own mind before writing the story. Perhaps an outline or even a cast of characters would be a good approach to help you provide distinction in each character.
A final distinction note is that when describing looks, don’t stick to the regular hair, eyes and height. Use metaphor or simile and make it real. For example:
Ridley Walters moved forward in much the same way that glaciers recede; each step was ponderous and seemed to have the weight of ages behind it. Although the pavement did not crack with each step as the behemoth of a man moved, the glass in the nearby storefronts certainly rattled. Ridley’s fleshy cheeks and jowels, however, were so full and heavy that they moved not a bit. Above his rosy face, however, his pale blue eyes darted from busy street to cloudless sky to shaking storefront and to his feet. They never rested. His nose was much the same as it seemed to take in all of the artificial and earth smells of 80th street: it twitched and sniffed ceaselessly.
In this paragraph we have established an interesting character and where he is. It didn’t take long, and it is engaging.
This is the third and final principle to keep in mind when breathing life into fictional characters. The above paragraph shows Ridley Walters walking down a busy city street, yet also fleshes out (pardon the pun) the character at the same time. Use action to help your reader discover more about your character. Describe how they move, rather than their waist size.
As you use dialogue, distinction in description, and action, your characters will begin to truly move through the story of their own accord, rather than being pushed through the story by you. Good luck!