Breathing life into your characters

Father and Daughter by susan52: DeviantArt
Father and Daughter by susan52: DeviantArt

I’ve been thinking a lot about role models and how they influence a writer’s work; the ways this translates to our readers.

There’s a reason writers become invested in their characters, why they often refer to them as real; a living, breathing part of the world as they know it. They have a history, complex personalities, and emotional depth. For readers, if we’re lucky, this equates to a character springing to life on the page.

Regardless of the process or how much planning is involved, as writers, we draw from our environment, and our experience. We observe behaviour, ask questions, have a sensitivity to body language, and pay attention. But it’s more than that. The people we meet, those we know – we use these observations to build unique fictional people. Then we give them a place to belong.

It’s not always a conscious decision and, like people as a whole, most have a variety of influences – their literary genes are inherited from all we see and hear. That’s why it’s so much fun when a character comes to us out of the blue. It can be difficult to pinpoint where they actually came from given the amount of information we carry in our head! It’s hard not to wonder at the magic of imagination, of fantasy, and marvel at the way the world around us has a direct influence on all we convey.

I can’t deny that many of my female characters are strong, passionate women. Quite simply, this is due to the fact I’m surrounded by resilient women. My mum is one of the strongest people I know. She is bubbly and affectionate, but, whenever I’m channelling sass – I think of her! My sister inherited that strength and I not only rely on her, I wouldn’t be the person I am without her.

And it’s not only my immediate family. My great-grandmother was a force to be reckoned with, a woman who practically raised four boys singled handed. Those boys (my grandfather included), were said to be hellions in their youth! She used tough love, an endless supply of patience and an iron will to keep them on the straight and narrow. I recognise her in a number of my characters, which isn’t a surprise.

The stories I grew with, family stories, certainly have an impact. My experiences of love and commitment, friendship and loyalty are also threaded through my work. I wouldn’t call us a military family per se, but most of the men served at one time or another and my grandmother lost her brother to the war. I never knew him, not personally, but through her I came to understand the man he was. It’s not only the good, it’s also the hurts and the disappointments we feel personally, and share with those closest to us.

I’ve had many wonderful male role models in my life. My brother is younger than me, but he’s my hero. It’s because of him I wrote my romantic crime series, and the experiences he shares about his life in the army all find their way onto the page. I haven’t personally served, but I understand camaraderie and the value of friendship and that’s what I try to reflect within the team I created. Growing up I had a lot more in common with boys than girls. My best friend, Tony, taught me valuable lessons about loyalty. He also has a wicked sense of humour, and I’m able to draw on those lessons.

That’s why, if we’re lucky, we connect with so many of our readers because, whatever the situation, whatever the outcome, it’s the characters who speak to, and for us. It’s in the connections they make, how they love, view the world and interact. A cacophony of life experiences that begin with our role models and build from there. That’s when a character truly comes to life. It’s what makes them memorable and why we want to spend time with them as often as we can. At least that’s how I see it.

There is a unique voice that lives within all of us. We might be shaped by others, but that’s not all there is, and it’s not all we give to our characters either. You could say, in one sense, the characters are an extension of us. So when a reader identifies with them, draws strength, laughs, cries, and celebrates their lives as we do, it’s a special kind of connection. There’s nothing quite like it. 

Thanks for stopping by.

Mel

25 thoughts on “Breathing life into your characters

  1. Reblogged this on Lance Greenfield and commented:
    I am a novice author with only one novel under my belt, but I have already experienced all of this. I used to think that authors who talked about the relationships and deep involvement that they had with their characters were just being luvvies. But I have found out for myself that it is true. I can read my own words about my own fictional character and burst into tears. I know that I am an emotional person, but it seems ridiculous. I must be crazy. I made it all up.

    And it is also true about characters walking into a story and you wonder, “Where the heck did he come from? I never thought of him before I started writing today!” That happened to me in the penultimate chapter of “Eleven Miles.” I can’t say who it was, because that would be a bit of a spoiler if you haven’t read it yet. But if you have, perhaps you can guess?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Very well said. I do enjoy when a spontaneous character appears and I have to track down the influence. I think something that people overlook is that one character can be an amalgamation of various people instead of there being a single source. Kind of like we’re all Dr. Frankenstein or, if you don’t like grave robbing, a golem-making wizard.

    You mention writing strong female characters because you’ve had so many in your life. I know a lot of authors that have said this, so I wonder if social trends (rise of women in workplace and politics) have a hand in it. I’m seeing more non-macho male characters appear as heroes as well. This is only gender, so you can see more variety in social archetypes. Okay, I’ve barely slept the last few days and I think I’m just stringing big words together. Not sure if that made sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Charles 🙂 And what you said made perfect sense. I think if you dropped a writer’s hands onto a keyboard before they’d even opened their eyes or their thoughts, something coherent would come out! We eat, breathe and sleep this stuff. But I’m sorry to hear your sleeping pattern has not improved. The last time we spoke I think you were running on empty, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed you get some shut eye soon. To pick up a point you made about the non-macho male characters. I think this is a refreshing change, because most of the time it’s all about the alpha male. These types of characters, in my opinion, need to be done well or there is a risk of becoming two-dimensional. I like the complexity a character brings, especially the diversity you mentioned when there is no single source of inspiration. Every person is unique and we need to reflect that in our work. One of my personal favourites, in terms of male characters, is Jack Reacher. He’s more than just an experienced bad-ass (even though he reminds me a little of David Banner or The Littlest Hobo!) – he has so many layers there is an immediate connection with the reader. I could go on, but I’ll stop before I send you to sleep 😉

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      1. If not coherent then amusing. 🙂 I’ll probably be running on empty for a while. If I’m lucky, next week will be the last of the hectic ones. After that, I’ll only be doing outlines and small projects instead of big books. Biggest thing will hopefully be a new release in December.

        Complexity is definitely a must with characters. Though I’ve been thinking about how there are simple people in the world too. I’ve seen a lot of people rail against various archetypes that they claim are cliche like the macho man or the damsel in distress. The thing is that these people do exist in the real world, so I wonder how you can do one without incurring the wrath of the audience.

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        1. We just can’t please everybody! But you’re absolutely right; these characters do exist and so they can’t really be classed as a cliché. The situation can become old, but the character…not so much. At least in my humble opinion! It’s good news that you have a few lighter weeks coming up – something to look forward to because it’s been pretty crazy for you.

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          1. 2015 has not treated me well. I’m thinking of simply taking the rest of it off from heavy stuff. Next year is looking lighter since I was aiming for a ton of projects this year. Amazed by what I finished actually. As far as the characters go, sometimes it might work to take an archetype and put him/her in a new situation/setting.

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          2. That would work 😀 This year has been particularly difficult for me too, especially over the last couple of weeks. I’ve already stepped back from blogging, because I have no choice, but I’m hoping to return in the new year. I did have a lot of projects planned, but that didn’t happen, so I’m hoping 2016 will be a more productive one for me. I hope you do manage to get a break and you can sit back an congratulate yourself on a job well done – all the hard work will pay off 😀

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          3. Seems most of the people I know haven’t had a great 2015. Wonder what caused all the mayhem. Think a break from blogging is a great idea. I’m only doing retro posts and maybe a poem day in December. Nothing too difficult to set up.

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    1. I love that, the thought of a new life and their story forming in my head. It’s the perfect way to describe it. Sometimes I can see a character so vividly in my mind, they follow me around for days! It’s a blessing 😀

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