I go to the market to look for characters for my stories. I sit in cafes or by the promenade and find them there. Standing, sitting, walking around, shopping, living… ever since I have been little, I have had a habit of observing people and their behavior very closely. I think that is one of the key drivers to my writing habit.
Some of the finest characters that I can recollect from stories read long ago: A govt. servant who never got over the fact that he sneezed at a superior during a concert (Chekov), Kira – the beautiful warrior of individuality in Ayn Rand’s We the Living; the prisoner in The Pit and the Pendulum, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe… these are characters from some of my favourite stories. I have read them almost 20 or more years ago, and I remember the stories and the characters so vividly in my mind as if I met them just yesterday.
So what is it in the story that makes characters come alive? To me, as an avid reader and writer, I have found the following five ways work well to make a character come alive in your story:
- Let real people inspire your fictional characters. Sure, fiction is supposed to be a space where anything is possible and you can easily have your characters living on Planet Mars in circa 3021 A.D. But your characters must be based on human emotions and behaviours. Your reader should be able to relate to the character. While we may not always relate to a physical situation, we can connect intensely to the inner turmoil, sorrow or joy a character feels. Find someone in real life, even if it is a stranger, to base your character on. It will give more strength to your character.
- Imagine a past for your character. Your story may start when your character is a full grown adult and you may choose never to refer to his / her past in the story. But in your mind, in your notes, your character must have a clear childhood and past just as you do. We do not operate in a limbo, each of us is defined by our past, our influences; so are your characters. Without a past that you know of, your character could end up growing without roots.
- Discover your character as you would a friend. If you have ever tried walking in someone else’s shoes for a while, you will know what I mean.Once I have created a character and am building a story, it is almost like I have this imaginary friend walking around with me everywhere. I can feel, hear and think as he / she does. To me, it’s a real person, and their issues are real. I need to help them find completion quickly, else their chattering inside my head can leave me very disoriented. That is one of the reasons I prefer writing short stories, preferably in one sitting. It may work differently for you, but listen to your character speak, get to know them and you will slowly begin to understand them better.
- Give your characters a flaw. All great superheroes, heroes, stars – everyone of them has a character flaw. That is what he or she is usually fighting against even as he / she defeats every other villain in the external world. Remember, our greatest enemies reside within us. Help your readers discover the flaw and let them follow the struggle of your characters as they work to overcome the flaws in their own world.
- Let your character lead the plot. Let me explain this. There are a million romances told, retold and told again. And yet each one is unique, each one is different. What is it that sets one story apart from another? Plot yes, but more than the plot, it is your character’s response to the plot. How would a Cinderella respond to a fairy godmother as v/s the little match girl of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale? Each of them responds differently for they are different individuals, with different feelings and expectations from life. The more real your character in your mind, the better you will be able to define his / her behavior in any given situation.
These are five tips I use when I write my stories. I write children’s stories, short stories, stories inspired by people I have seen at bus stops; others that seek to understand the lives of sudden celebrities. I love people and they make their way into my writings in a million different ways. How do you discover your characters? Are they inspired from the real world? Or are they absolute figments of your imagination? Do let me know.
~ Bharti Athray