How to breathe life into your fictional characters

Spring is here – season of new life and regeneration. And the question for this month’s authors’ Round Robin fits perfectly in the them of spring:

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor
How do you breathe life into your characters?

I’d been a writer for a long time before I began working as a freelance editor. It wasn’t until I began providing feedback for other writers that I really sat down and thought about what works and what doesn’t work when creating fictional characters. This is because it’s not enough to say to a writer that you feel something isn’t working. You have to explain why it isn’t working, and give constructive suggestions.

So here are the six tips on characterisation I’ve developed over the years of editing:

fiction editor, yorkshire
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Show, don’t tell

Yes, I know it’s an old writers’ cliché, but it’s true. In fiction, just like in real life, you can tell people until you’re blue in the face that someone is kind, or smart, or devious, or whatever. The words will wash over them. It’s not until they see those characteristics in action that they’ll believe it.

So instead of saying ‘Cora was a devoted mother,’ better to show Cora’s devotion in action. By showing scenes in which Cora devotes herself to her children, or when others remark on her devotion, or the children themselves benefit from her devotion – or maybe even suffer from it – this aspect of her character will have depth and memorability.

Showing the reader requires ingenuity and takes more time, but it’s one of the key ways – if not the key way – to give your character life. (There’s so much more to be said on ‘show, don’t tell’. More in this post here.)

Make the reader care

How often have you put a book down because you didn’t care about the characters? Or read a review where someone said the same thing?

Making readers care is an important part of giving your characters life. When readers care about your characters, it means they’ve become like real people to them, and they’re invested enough to read on.

A whole article could be written on making the reader care alone, but here are some tips:

Readers love an underdog — Harry Potter locked under the stairs; Eleanor Oliphant arriving at work with a black eye; Anne of Green Gables being returned because she’s a girl. The beloved underdogs of fiction are many.

editors, yorkshire

But if your main character is wealthy and successful, you can also have readers relating to them by giving them characteristics such as kindness and decency, or a weakness they can empathise with, such as Gatsby’s love for Daisy in The Great Gatsby.

If your main character is meant to be unlikeable, your job is harder, and you may need to rely on keeping the reader fascinated enough stick with them – or again, you can make readers care by giving the unlikeable character a relatable motive for their behaviour, like Stephen King’s Carrie, who is bullied by the girls in her class.

Give your character a backstory

Why does your character behave the way they do? What’s made them the people that they are? Many writers enjoy filling in the details of their characters’ early lives, and it can be fun dwelling on your character’s history before starting to write the story. The important thing, though, is to have a backstory that is directly related to the character’s personality.

Jane Eyre’s childhood experiences, for example, have a direct impact on her desire for independence; they make her resilient, and they give her empathy and compassion for others. Charlotte Brontë devotes a lot of the novel to Jane’s childhood, but there isn’t always a need to fill in every detail of the backstory in the actual novel. Just a few brushstrokes can often be enough, depending on your story. I’m presently reading the Poldark novels, by Winston Graham. We don’t see how Ross Poldark fought in America, but we see how his time in the army has changed him as a person and made him more of an outsider.

freelance editor, yorkshire
Image by Chen from Pixabay

Use your secondary characters

Secondary characters are a great way to give your characters depth, to reveal their motivations and their personalities. There are some secondary characters that have leapt off the page to become famous in their own right: Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories; Severus Snape from Harry Potter; Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice; Amy from Little Women.

Secondary characters are there for a purpose – as foils for the main character, and to reveal something extra about them. (You can read more about developing secondary characters here.)

Give your character a special trait or characteristic

Giving your character a distinctive and memorable trait or characteristic, or a habit, is one way to have them become memorable as an individual. Sherlock Holmes is a virtuoso violin player; Anne of Green Gables has bright red hair (and she’s also stubborn); Captain Haddock in the Tintin comics likes a drink and is a fluent swearer; Matilda loves to read books; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gives the characteristic in the title.

Have your character do something surprising

Real people aren’t black-and-white, and your fictional characters would be boring and one-dimensional if they always acted the way readers have been led to expect.

The most memorable characters do something unexpected. When quiet, timid Oliver Twist steels himself to step up to the front to ask for more, it’s one of the most famous moments in fiction. When Olivia Newton steps out in top-to-toe leather as sandy in Grease, it’s one of the most iconic moments in film history.

(Just remember, though, that even if the characters surprise us, what’s led up to the surprising moment is believable and has depth.)


I hope you’ve found my six tips on creating compelling and believable characters useful.

If you’d like to read the other authors’ takes on this month’s topic, please click on the links below.

In the meantime, do you have a favourite character from fiction? If so, what is it about that character that works so well and brings them alive?

If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Diane Bator https://dbator.blogspot.com/

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2TY

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/

Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com

13 thoughts on “How to breathe life into your fictional characters

  1. Very comprehensive list on things to do to create real people. Yes, readers do like to identify and empathize with an underdog, but as you point out, the villain could just as easily be a damaged person that the reader could also identify with. The trick is to make them compelling enough for the reader to not be able to put the book down until they find out the ending!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Fiona, yes, that’s exactly it about making the villain compelling, even if they’re not a nice person. I’ve never tried to write from a villain’s point of view. I really admire writers who can do this and have the reader stick with them the entire way. Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!


  2. I have problems creating villains as first of all I want to know why they are the way they are. Once I’ve created their backstory, I usually finish up feeling sorry for them so think they are never as villainous as the story requires.


    1. Hi Vicky, I can empathise with your problem with writing villains. When I’ve tried it, mine tend to be cartoonish bad guys, but if I try to give them a more subtle backstory, exactly the same happens: they turn out to be too nice! Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment x


  3. Two excellent points: Show don’t tell and The writer needs to know the whole backstory, but please, only share the relevant stuff as it pertains to the current situation. Even the surprising actions that might take even the author off guard with a Holy Cow reaction, still have to be rooted in that back story so they don’t come completely out of left field and challenge the readers belief. My comment is there always has to be a reason…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Skye, I agree about everything needing to be relevant, and it’s something I often comment on in my editing feedback. A nice scene, or an interesting bit of backstory, isn’t enough on its own. Everything has to be included for a purpose.
      I’ve really enjoyed this month’s Round Robin. Thanks for organising!


  4. I wonder how you write a character without all of this and make them interesting. Is it even possible? Even with flash fiction, backstory comes out, interaction is essential, quirks and traits reveal themselves.

    Great post!


  5. I agree, everything must have a purpose in the crafting of a story. I handle my villains with care in my YA/MG novels. Romantic Suspense/Mysteries, there are 3-dimensional bad guys—just the way Iike ‘I’m.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Connie, a one-dimensional villain can be fun, like the pantomime villains at the theatre, but villains with depth seem to stay in the mind for longer. I’ve really enjoyed this month’s Round Robin again. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment!


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