The Life of an Imaginary Friend

White Mannequin Lying on Street

Or, The oddness of characters.

Characters are funny old things. We dream them up, give them lives, names, faces,bodies, likes, dislikes, all manner of mannerisms, friends, families, wants, desires, needs, passions; and yet, for all that, they can remain stubbornly two-dimensional, trapped in the words on the page, struggling to come to life.

This is especially true of secondary (or tertiary) characters, often because the author is so concerned with perfecting the character of their protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). Sometimes it makes me think of the developing novel like a film set, the diva-ish protagonist strutting around and demanding the author’s time and attention, whilst the supporting characters skulk in the background, preparing to walk on and say their line, perhaps sneaking a quick cigarette in between sentence revisions.

What I mean to say is that authors are in the business of creating life, and yet so often our creations can end up lying on a slab, unwilling or unable to rise, no matter how much lightning we zap into them in our efforts to command them to do so.

What is it, then, that makes a character come to life? At what point in the writing do they take on that vital essence of their own? For this is surely what happens, and I am sure it has happened to most of us: the collection of adjectives and motivations we have spent so long assembling from post-it notes and mental snapshots of strangers on the bus, the jumble of words that was lying so still and lifeless, suddenly springs up and takes over the story, often dragging it in unexpected directions.

Wait, were you expecting an answer? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint. I don’t have one for you. If there was a rule or a formula to follow, don’t you think we’d all be doing it? I can’t tell you exactly how to write characters that leap off the page, but I can give you some pointers so you have the best chance of achieving ‘life’:

  • Give your characters a raison d’etre. In a word: motivation. All characters should have some kind of inner life, some reason to get up in the morning, something behind everything they do. I’d advise this even for secondary or tertiary characters, because you never know when one of them might step forward to do some heavy thematic lifting. Recently I listed every single on of my characters and gave them all a one-line motivation: ‘I am nothing without my sister’, ‘I hate my baby’, ‘I want to get a better job’. For some reason these all turned out as negatives – perhaps because negative drivers are more powerful than positive?
  • Invest in characterisation. I’m sure I’ve written about this before (yes I have), but basically it boils down to this: character = internal, characterisation = external. Make sure you are au fait with the more mundane, superficial aspects of your characters. Age, sex, race, hair colour, eye colour, likes, dislikes, education, wealth … take as many or as few of these as you want. Some aspects of characterisation (for example, wealth and education) can end up informing character, and might bring a bit player into the limelight.
  • Get visual. It’s not always that you’ll base the physical appearance of a character on an actual person – personally, I find it useful to keep my protagonists hazy, to allow the reader’s own personality to bleed in – but especially with background characters it can help to have a clear sense of their appearance. Obviously you won’t be able to nail down a look for every single person in every single scene, but a few key players here and there might help. A friend of mine recommended the Humans of New York blog for fleshing out characters, and so do I.

Those are my top tips. There are plenty more floating around, but I’ve found these to be a useful starting point.

Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments, and to throw in your own ideas and tips.

Happy reading and writing.

2 thoughts on “The Life of an Imaginary Friend

Add yours

  1. Shout out for that friend of yours! I was just looking through.some more HoNY this morning, actually.
    I’m In some ways, I find tertiary characters more fun to write because I can make them less complicated (without so many layers), and it’s sometimes an enjoyable challenge to create a secondary character that doesn’t hit on many of the popular clichès.

  2. The challenge of creating living characters becomes even more difficult when you have two, three of even four characters that are heavily involved in the story.

    I’ve found that certain characters always seem to stand out, despite the relative equality in regards to importance to the overall story. This liveliness makes them easier, and more enjoyable, to write. But also draws the writer’s attention to where his work is lacking.

    These are great suggestions!

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