Question from a Reader: How does one go about crafting characters that instantly come alive?

Writers block

It’s important to remember that stories are not simply about what characters do, they are about what characters want—and then what they do to get what they want.

So, early on in the book, preferably as soon as we meet the character, you’ll want to make it clear to readers what that character desires most. Here are four keys to developing characterizations quickly.

1 – Stick your character in the middle of a struggle – Ideally the characters will have an internal struggle (a question that needs to be answered) and an external struggle (a problem that needs to be solved). The internal struggle should be one that readers can identify with. For example, the desire for freedom or love or acceptance or forgiveness, and so on.

2 – Give your character an attitude, a wound, a quirk or a unique voice – If you want us to empathize with the character, consider giving him or her a wound that we all share—grief, rejection, despair, regret, shame, etc. (This is similar to #1.) Then, bring your character to life with something unique that will attract readers to him.

3 – Show differing degrees of status – Status is another aspect to characterization that’s vital for creating multi-dimensional characters. What is status? Essentially, it’s the degree of submission or dominance characters have in relationship to other characters. So, if a person is always angry or always brooding or always shy, that character won’t be interesting because he always has the same status with everyone. On the other hand, if a character has differing degrees of status with his boss and his wife and his daughter and his associates at work and the villains he is tracking, that character will seem more real because that’s the way real people relate to other real people.

4 – Let your character show resolve, courage or self-sacrifice – Frankly, most readers couldn’t care less where your character went to college or whether he’s wearing a maroon or light blue cardigan. Readers want to see the character in a struggle to accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, or strive toward fulfilling a dream. So spend less time telling us about the character’s background and more time rendering the character’s desires.

So, when introducing your characters, show them in varying relationships with other characters, give them a universal desire readers will empathize with, make it clear to readers what that desire is, and reveal what lies at the heart of your hero by allowing him to be heroic early in the story.

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