Creating Lifelike Characters

Some thoughts on Frankenstein and bringing your characters to life.

Dr. Victor Frankenstein was one bad ass dude.  He just gets it in his head one day that if he digs up body parts, sews them together, and zaps them with lightning, he’ll get a living, breathing person.  And, lo & behold, it works!  Which is legit one of the reasons I love fiction so much: all that implausible science and no one really giving a damn…

Unfortunately, we dwellers of reality live on slightly firmer ground.  There’s no zappy, zappy.  No stitching up decomposing body parts.  No grave robbing.  We have to find other, more socially acceptable ways to piece together our monsters…

CAST’EM OUT

Like Dr. F, you have to give your creations solid bodies to walk around in.  Assign them Hollywood actors.  Assign them your own acquaintances.  Pick out random folks you just happen to see now and again while meandering through your daily life.

As a kid, I hated our weekly trips to the grocery store.  Total drudgery.  My mother was the type who liked to peruse each and every aisle.  EACH.  AND.  EVERY.  AISLE.

So, to occupy myself, I cast all of the store’s employees as characters in my book.  That way, when Ma dragged me along, I could take secret pleasure in watching my peeps walk around, living their lives.  And every week, I could make note of their appearance and their habits and be a really creepy kid, now that I think about it.

Cutting faces out of magazines is all well and good, but that’s kinda like building your monster out of paper dolls.  Real life faces can lend mannerisms and speech patterns.  They give a solid foundation on which to build.  Bonus if someone else recognizes the similarities between your MC and his secret actor counterpart.

Movie Maker: “Yo, man, I dig your book.  It’d make a great movie ~ I totally see Ewan McGregor as the lead!”

Writer: “Ha ha ha, dat’s weird!?!”

Just be careful about basing more despicable characters on people you know.  And, if you’re ever accused, do what I do!

Me: “Oh.  So you actually see yourself in my stark raving, kitten-killing psychopath?”

Give them time to think about that.

But, seriously, be careful.

PUT A LITTLE SKIN IN THE GAME

Don’t let total strangers dictate everything about your characters.  Throw a little bit of yourself in there too.  Give them your dreams and your goals.  Your regrets and your fears.

Sit with each character individually and hand them a small piece of yourself.  Even the villain.  Especially the villain.  Understand where they’re coming from, and where they’re going.  Establish a common ground.  Relate to them on a personal level, so you can better represent them on the page.

IMMA SOUL, MAN!

On that note, I find that my characters never quite reach “living” status until I’ve managed to unearth their soul.

Soul.  Soul?  The hell do I mean, soul?

In a word?  Their essence.  In another word?  Their core.  In a whole flock of words?  The very foundation of their being.  What makes them them.

Unfortunately, there’s only one way to gather this info and that’s the dirty, unpleasant way.  You have to lure this character from the group.  You have to subject him to rigorous interrogation, learning anything and everything you can.

And you can’t ask, bluntly, What’s your biggest fear?  Nuh uh.  Where’s the fun in that?  Let him show you what it is.  Don’t ask him about his childhood ~ live his childhood.  Write out snippets of it.  Archive them.  Write out bits of his present.  Archive those too.  Walk through a normal day in the life of your character.  Look at what he cares about, and what he wants.

The word “soul” here isn’t a concrete thing.  You won’t be able to point at it and go, “Yep, dat dare’s my character’s soul!”  Finding your character’s soul is about knowing this person so well that you can predict whether she’ll jump left or right or if she’ll just say “Screw it” and jump downward in this weird display of mind-humping physics.

Unearthing his soul means knowing him at his base level, and understanding where every other facet of his being branches off from it.

It’s a difficult, unending task.  But, if you don’t know your character, who does?

MISTER DOCTOR CRAZY-ASS WRITER

I think Dr. F’s biggest mistake was that he rejected his creation.  I mean, who does that?  You literally created life out of lightning and dead body parts, bro ~ who the hell cares if he’s ugly!?!  Friggin’ grow a pair!  Jeez.  And, yes, I know: his detest for his creation is symbolic of how “uncool” it is to mess with the natural order of life.  I done did the book report.  I’m hip to the morals they’re jiving.

My point is, creation is a complicated process.  It can be joyous.  It can be frustrating.  It can be satisfying as heck.  And it can be downright terrifying.  But the more you piece them together, the more lifelike your characters become.  So stick to it.  And remember that there really isn’t an end to character creation.  Just when you think you know them, they show off one more thing about themselves you didn’t know before.

And that, I believe, is what a “living” creation is all about.

Author: Cedillo

Cedillo is the pen name of a writer who hasn’t had the guts to tell his family that he’s a blogger yet. He lives in the American Midwest. He has a bearded dragon named Rooney. He’s been writing stories since he was five years old. He is also a girl.

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