Making Your Characters Come Alive

The object of any story is to make your audience care about what happens to your characters, especially your main one — the protagonist. In order to do that, you’ve got to make all the players in your plot as real as possible. They must step off the page or screen into the hearts of the onlookers.

I’ve read a few stories and watched many movies where the main character seems to be all that the writer cared about creating. The supporting cast is just as important, especially the villain — your antagonist.

Before you begin to tell your tale, spend some time jotting down traits, both physical and personality. Take time to get to know the eccentricities of each and every one of your people. Don’t worry too much about thinking them through at this point, just write down what you see and sense. It is true that fictional characters have a way of taking on a life of their own, if you let them. Be sure to record what is developing so that later you’ll be able to draw on those attributes as you paint each portrait.

Now go back and identify the desire or motivation individually. How does the hero’s motivation clash with the bad guy’s? That is the basis of your story. The primary characters and their yearnings are what push the story forward.

So, as you build the foundation, always keep in mind the following questions:

  • Is the hero someone you would like to know in real life? Are you pulling for him or her? If you find you really don’t care if he makes it to his goal, your writing needs some work.
  • How much you do dislike the antagonist? It should be a pretty hefty amount; enough so that you care nearly as much that he fails as you do that the hero wins.
  • Does the hero have a flaw? If the main character doesn’t have a fairly obvious flaw, they won’t seem real.
  • Does the hero’s desire shift during the course of the story? Think of Jack from “Titanic.” His driving force was to get to America, but once he meets Rose things change for him and he’s as motivated to free her from her circumstances as he is to reach America. In fact, his goal to get to America fades rather dramatically from sight.
  • Does the antagonist have a soft spot, something that makes him human? No matter how evil, the antagonist needs to have something he cares about beyond himself. Perhaps he has a child he loves, or is doing all this evil in the name of something good like the survival of the species. There are certainly many movies and books that leave this out, but once you look deeply you’re likely to find very cardboard bad guys. The antagonist cannot just be a pain in the backside for the hero, but equal to the hero in some way.
  • Have you put enough energy into the supporting characters? Are we going to care when the nurse is killed at the end of scene three? Each supporting character needs to have a story of their own: he’s the universally loved café owner who may be losing his business, she’s the ex-girlfriend of the hero who is still in love with him or even the hero’s companion dog is really a stray who needs a home.
  • Finally as you come to the end of your story, don’t leave the readers or moviegoers hanging. Give them the payoff they’ve been waiting for and tie up the loose ends. Beyond the hero’s main story, show the café owner losing the restaurant but unexpectedly happy because he can go on the long-awaited road trip in his RV, the ex-girlfriend is seen kissing the hero’s best friend and the dog is now wearing a collar with a name tag on it. It’s the little things that count in wrapping up the lives of your characters.

If you remember that your characters should be living, breathing human beings to you and put that on the page, your audience will believe in them, too.


This post originally appeared on Co.Writer, an online publication focused on helping working professionals improve their writing skills.