On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes shares her writing advice for how to write characters that feel alive beyond the limits of your story, and why it matters.
Written by JJ Barnes
The characters of your story are the main draw for your audience. Your plot and world can be fascinating, but if the characters are flat, the story will feel flat. Characters who feel alive make your story feel real, and that makes it more exciting for your audience.
A key way to write characters who feel alive is by making it clear that they don’t only exist within the walls of your story. They lived before, they’ll live after, and they have lives that spread beyond the tiny part you’re exploring in your plot. I’ll explore how to write characters who feel alive.
Characters Who Feel Alive Lived Before Your Story Began
The truth of your characters is that, of course, they aren’t real. They were created to service the story you’re writing, they have no lives prior to your choice to explore your plot. Their lives begin as your story begins. However, your characters need to feel real so your audience can emotionally invest in them. If they don’t feel real, and therefore there’s no emotional connection, your story won’t feel important.
To make it feel like your characters were alive before Chapter One, you need to develop their backstory. You might never explore it, never write it, but it’s there. You, as the writer, need to know that life because it will shape and change your character. So you can write them with that history in mind.
Every major event in our lives leaves a mark on us. An emotional bruise. It changes us as people and how we respond to things in the future. Your characters should start your stories marked. Whether it’s a painful divorce, the loss of a parent, or betrayal by a friend. There is pain in their past. And emotional bruise that can be poked and stir up feelings that mean you’re creating characters who feel alive. Not just blank slates.
Characters Who Feel Alive Will Live On After Your Story Ends
The end of your story isn’t the end of your character’s lives. Well, for some it is if you kill them, but for the ones who survive they will go on. That means you cannot wrap up every single thread in their story. Let some questions go unanswered.
The main conflict of your story needs a satisfying resolution. You cannot end on a cliffhanger and expect your audience to come back for more unless this is already a well established series. However, threads should be left loose, even if you’re not planning a sequel.
Life isn’t a neat package. Life doesn’t resolve every single conflict at the same moment. There will be hopes and dreams that exist even if the story goal has been satisfied. Aspirations that have not yet been achieved, pain that hasn’t yet healed. The End of your story doesn’t mean the end of their lives, it just means the end of that story specific conflict. So make it clear that they will live on, want more, do more.
Conflict Outside Of Your Main Storyline
Your story follows your Protagonist setting out to achieve a story goal, and set against your Antagonist who wants to achieve the opposite. That’s the reason you’re exploring this snapshot of their lives. You start at the Inciting Incident, when your Protagonist becomes active, and finish when the conflict is resolved. So, obviously, that conflict will take the main focus.
However, both your main characters, and the characters circling your main characters, have more going on than this one story. There are multiple goals at all times in all scenes. However much a police officer wants to catch a robber, they also want other things. They will want to rest, to eat, to do well in their career, to see their friends, to fall in love. We aren’t just one trick ponies focused on one single thing. We are a mixture of constant wants and needs, all competing for our attention and to be satisfied.
Make it clear that, as well as your story goal, every single character has wants and needs. Your side characters are on their own journeys and pursuing their own goals. You won’t explore them all, or see them all resolved, but they’ll impact what those characters are doing. They’ll change what they choose to focus on or talk about, their moods and their thoughts. Characters who feel alive have hopes, dreams and goals beyond those which are focused on for your plot.
Why Characters Who Feel Alive Will Improve Your Story
When we consume a story, logically we know it’s not real. However, our emotions will override it. Stories that feel real can make us laugh, cry, be frightened, be hopeful. If it doesn’t feel real, you won’t feel those emotions. You won’t experience that kind of connection because the artificial quality acts as a wall between audience and story. By making your characters feel like real human beings who your audience is experiencing the life of, you’re breaking that wall down. Your characters will matter so your story will matter.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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