How to Avoid Creating Plastic Characters

When I was judging a recent contest, some entries captivated me and others didn't. One of the problems in the entries that didn't draw me in was a feeling of distance, like the characters were the plastic doll house people my daughters play with. Each figure moved around from place to place and scene to scene, but somehow lacked the breath of life that would make them real.

As I thought about the plastic-feel of the characters, I wondered what makes the difference between real, life-size characters and ones that are small and stiff. How can we move beyond doll-house characters to having ones that feel so alive we’d like to meet them?

I have to admit, I don’t write (or often read) character driven stories. The Preacher’s Bride (releasing in Oct.) is full of action and drama, and the book I’m currently writing is plot-driven as well. But, that doesn’t mean I’ve neglected my characters. In fact, I’ve worked really hard to breathe life into them before I begin the writing process. Here are just a few of the techniques I employ:

*Fill out a character worksheet. Over the years I’ve developed a worksheet that helps me figure out everything I need to know about my main characters—everything from their size underwear to the type of deodorant they use. Okay. Not really. I write historicals and they didn’t have underwear or deodorant. But you get my point! My questionnaire isn’t anything special, but if you’d like to use it as a springboard for your own, I’ve made it available at the top of my blog under the tab: Character Worksheet

*Understand their past. I may not need to know when they had their first scraped knee or lost tooth. But I do try to look for those defining incidents in their past that have shaped them into the characters they are in the present. These are usually the painful, life-shaping events (big or little) that provide the impetus behind their motivations in the story.

*Define the strengths. I try to narrow down the qualities that will help my readers care about the characters. Some refer to these as the “heroic” qualities. I brainstorm a list, then try to pull out a top strength. This is the one I show my character doing in my first chapter, to get my readers caring right away. I also pick out a few others that form the backbone of the character.

*Define the weaknesses. I carefully decide a main inner struggle or conflict that my character will need to work through. This is sometimes called the internal plot which is separate from but woven together with the external plot (and the relationship plot in a romance). The weakness needs to arise organically in the story out of those past motivations that we know but won’t divulge until later to our readers.

I’ve only shared a fraction of what I do to develop my characters. There are innumerable methods and books available on developing characters. Check the Helpful Writing Books list above for suggestions from other writers.

For me, the KEY to avoiding plastic characters is that I don’t start writing the story until my characters are already alive. I usually spend many weeks getting to know them. Finally, I reach a point when they’re living and breathing in my mind. In some ways, I’ve become that person—I’m playing his or her part with my body, heart, and soul. It’s at that point I know I’m ready to start the actual writing.

Yes, I realize I won’t know everything about my characters, that I’ll understand them even better as the story unfolds. But it’s like a marriage relationship. Before marriage we take time to get to know our partner—all their secrets, their past, their strengths and weaknesses. The growing doesn’t stop when we say “I do.” We change and always give our partners new things to discover about us. The same is true of our fiction characters and perhaps even more so.

When we take the time to stoke the passion with our characters and understand them intimately before committing them to paper, then we have a much greater chance of bringing them out of the doll house and onto the stage of life.

How do you keep your characters from being plastic? What are the techniques you employ to bring yours to life? Please share! We’d all like to learn more!

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