Writer Wednesday: The Secret Life of Characters

Ever find that your characters lack dimension?  That they seem more like cardboard cutouts than real people?


Or maybe you find the opposite – your characters are so alive they do or say things you didn’t expect.

As a writer, you’ve probably experienced both.

Even if you’re not a writer, I imagine there are plenty of people you’ve met that you just didn’t get.  Some of them might keep everything hidden away, a mystery.  You might inaccurately assume they have no personality.  Some of them might say or do things that you don’t understand.  But everyone has some kind of hidden motivation.

Here’s an interesting quote that I think sums up what I’m talking about:

Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something. (H. Jackson Brown Jr.)

So when you’re writing, or even if you’re just trying to understand the people around you, here are a few considerations.

What are they afraid of?

We’re not talking about the dark or heights here.  Of course, that might come into play, but we’re talking deeper.  Gary Smalley in his book The DNA of Relationships says that everyone is ultimately afraid of either being controlled or being detached from other people.  That fear plays out in various ways: fear of failure, fear of being belittled, etc.  If you really want to dig into this idea, try going through the Core Fears Test, answering the questions on behalf of your characters.

What do they love?

It might not be the obvious.  Don’t make your villains love puppies and kittens just to make them sympathetic.  (I was actually requested to do this once.  Needless to say I found a subtler way.)  Maybe they love a family member.  Maybe they love an object.  Maybe they just love themselves.  Find out what it is.

What have they lost?

Make this significant, but not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind.  Maybe it was a loved one, but maybe not.  Maybe it was a quality, like innocence.  Maybe it was an ability they used to have.  Get creative on this, and don’t shy away from pain.  Remember that trouble is the life of a story.

Hopefully that helps you take your characters from cookie cutters to unique individuals.  Or, if you’re not a writer, that it helps you better understand yourself and those around you.

2 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: The Secret Life of Characters”

  1. I’m really glad that I found you via the Ultimate Blog Challenge! As well as blogging and writing articles, I am trying to write a novel. This post therefore was very helpful for me.

    1. Great Sue! I’m so glad to help! I’ve posted tons of other writing tips on this blog. Feel free to use my tag cloud on the left to find more. Best of luck with your novel. 🙂

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