What is the key to compelling characters who make a story live?
There are a few basics. The first is to make them unique. That means make them so individual they draw you into their lives.
The idea for your character may be an actor, a trait from an acquaintance, or your imagination. It’s up to you to take that character and expand that start into a living, breathing person.
At a lecture on enneagram types by Laurie Schnebly Campbell I learned about dominant traits, something I’d been using for years without knowing it. This is a basic tool to associate three or four characteristics that illustrate his/her character. For example a perfectionist might have a need for order, control or an adventurer seeks excitement and new things. Check it out or attend a lecture. It’s extremely useful.
Every scene should show one or more of these characteristics through her dialogue, body language or thoughts. Add other related traits so your character is multifaceted and different form the others.
Use her surrounding to show who she is, her relationships or lack of, and her actions. She lives in the woods, a solitary life or in a busy city to be with or avoid people. Little things like a collection of cat figures from her childhood or a love of blueberry jam lend reality.
Use tags to distinguish your character. E.g. the hero is described a moving like a predator, his hair a golden mane, his moves cat-like.
In Ancient Awakening, my hero has animal characteristics. He’s comfortable in the dark, his hearing is keen, his sense of smell sharpened, so I balanced that with a logical mind.
Example from Ancient Awakening:
Steve’s fingers clawed through his rumpled hair as he absently adjusted the focus on his microscope. He needed another trim badly. His rapidly growing hair was more than an irritation. Along with his thickened nails, it was another symptom.
Frustrated when his vision remained blurred he closed his eyes. He had to take a break. He hadn’t slept since early yesterday morning. His ability to concentrate on the task at hand was keeping him sane, but his thoughts twisted with the implications of the discovery at the dump.
Swallowing a mouthful of the artificial protein drink he’d concocted when nothing else would settle in his stomach, he stared at the fresh slide sample.
What he’d seen of the bloodless corpse had poised him on the edge of panic. He couldn’t hesitate any longer. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids to blot out the memory of Mel concentrating on the puzzle of the dead man, her changeable hazel eyes green with curiosity.
He didn’t want to think about Mel. The way she always moved like those too thin, sensuous women on the covers of glamour magazines, with slim hips, long legs and no breasts had his groin tightening. The longing to taste her lips added to his misery. He could smell her scent on the breeze.
What do you think is the most important characteristic?
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