Breathing Life into your Characters

Oh, what godlike powers! Take a lump of electronic clay and breathe it into life!

It doesn’t happen like that for me. I am not my characters’ deity, but their servant and scribe. At best, they treat me as their equal, but are more likely to be impatient and demanding, telling me what to write, NOW!

Reality liveth in my computer. Those people in there are real. But of course, 8 billion humans suffer the illusion of some other reality out there. They are my potential readers, so I need to present my writing in such a way that my characters appear as rounded, 3D people to them as well.

Nobody is perfect. This applies to characters in my stories as well as to me, you, and everyone else. I know people I am sure are enlightened or very close to it, and they also have faults and foibles and failings, and bodies that fall apart due to age, illness and injury. So, one of the things I need to ask of Sylvia and Maraglindi and Pip and Flora is


What are your problems, your annoying habits, your failings, your sources of insecurity or guilt or shame or anxiety or depression, your physical handicaps? What are the things you don’t like about yourself?

Then I need to work these aspects into my writing without appearing to do so (you know, show not tell).

And for the converse, some of the people in my computer do awful things, but no one is completely bad. So, I need to ask all of them,


Naturally, the heroes and their supporters, the people who do things I approve of, can provide me with a long list. But even the ones who commit evil crimes have good features. Among the worst is Derek in Maraglindi, but after all, he is a product of his culture, history and environment, and is justly proud of his expertise as a farmer. If Maraglindi herself could give him unconditional love (she did), then how can I do less? So, while disapproving of his actions, I need to present him in a way that allows a reader to understand where he is coming from, and why.

Finally, everyone is different. You are unique in all the billions of years of the history of our Universe, and so am I, and so is everyone in my stories. Therefore, I need to ask them,


Because it is these features that hopefully make them unforgettable. These are the features my writing needs to engrave into the story.

That’s “what” out of the way. Yes, yes, but how?

Point of view (POV) is what gives a story POW. The thing is not to write about a person, but to be that person while writing. This doesn’t mean first-person presentation, although it can, but following the conventions of writing, to use action, dialogue, description and inner thoughts/sensations/feelings to sketch in the character’s reality.

Yes, I said “sketch.” Writing is not a photograph but a graphite drawing. Endless details provide a quicksand the story drowns in. My job as writer is the same as a cartoonist’s: to provide a few bold lines that define character, emotion, action. This is why a novel is better than a movie. When reading a story, you create the totality from a few cues the author provides. In a movie, someone else had that fun, and you are a passive recipient.

Here is an extract from my coming book on grief. OK, that’s nonfiction, and I am presenting a real interaction with a past client (with only the name changed), but the technique needs to be the same.

    Greta originally came to me because of domestic violence. You could see it on her face: slightly crooked nose, a missing front tooth, and that defeated look of a victim. She had endured years of abuse, but her husband’s grooming induced her to believe that she had nowhere to go.

    And then he got into a drunken fight and died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.

    Six months down the track, she said to me, “At first, I felt joy—‘the bastard’s gone!’—but I… I feel guilty that I miss him.”

    “Let’s examine this. Would you want him back?”

    “No way!”

    “Greta, close your eyes… A few deep breaths…” I’d taught her relaxation and meditation in our earliest sessions, and now saw her relax. “Put yourself in a situation when you miss him. When you’re ready, tell me about it.”

    After a silence, she softly, hesitantly said, “There’s no one to tell me what to do… I need to make all the decisions… Yeah, the fear is gone, but, but, there is nothing in its place. I’m in a… an emotional vacuum, like.”

    I don’t know if you are in this situation. If not, imagine it. How do we escape from an emotional vacuum?

    Remember the seven magic bullets? They are a great start. In particular, I encouraged Greta to engage in creative activities, and to deliberately have fun. Then I moved to the most important magic bullet by asking, “What was the meaning of your life while Ron was still alive?”

    “Survival.” We’d worked this out months previously, but I needed it as the starting point of her new life.

    “OK, Greta, what’s my next question?”

    Good. That got laughter. “What’s the meaning of my life now, right?”

    “Right. See, you don’t need me, you can do it yourself.”

    She looked down, then out the window, then into my eyes. “Rebuilding.”

    She was on the way.

How old is Greta? What’s the colour of her hair and eyes? How tall is she? All of these, and many more features, are your choice, and that makes the story more compelling. She is YOUR idea of a survivor of domestic violence, not of some movie producer’s.

Because this is from a self-help book, it does contain a few sentences from me that are relevant to the purpose of the book, so here is another example that’s pure fiction.

    They think I don’t know that Mom is dying.

    Last night, the family met at our house, with Nan in charge, and right at the start she said very firmly, “Oh, we must protect the poor little mite as long as possible. He’ll have time to grieve soon enough.” Then I heard her blow her nose.

    Dad said, “Yeah, I want him to remember Anne at her best, not…”

    I could see nothing but the back of the sofa, and if I got right down to the floor, Dad’s big black shoes, and Aunt Tilda’s red high heels.

    Jee! Poor little mite, indeed. I mean, I’m ten! Not fair, treating me like a baby, but that’s adults for you.

    Anyway, there I was, and at last could put it all together. Dad has only told me that Mom was sick in hospital, but “getting better.” Oh yeah, then why wasn’t I allowed to visit her? And why did Dad have bloodshot eyes like he’s been crying? Dad of all people, I’ve always thought he was made of tool steel like the things he works with. But tool steel doesn’t cry.

    They used a lot of big words like prognoscis and pallative, but what I got out of it was that Mom had only weeks to live. I still didn’t know why, but I reckoned it had to be cancer. My mate Tom’s Dad died of cancer from smoking. But Mom doesn’t smoke. Dad used to but not anymore, and anyway, he’s OK, it’s Mom who’s crook.

    But Dad told everyone (including me behind the sofa) that Mom’s been moved from the hospital in the city to a hospits or something—sounds crazy, but that’s the closest I could get to it—and gave the address, and “Room 14.” I’m good at remembering things.

    They kept yakking on, until I got stiff, lying in my hidey hole, and then it was coffee and some cakes a couple of the Aunties brought, but none for me of course. But at last, way past my bedtime I reckon, they got up and Dad followed them to the front door and here was my chance. As soon as the light clicked off, I shoved hard against the sofa and somehow managed to stand on legs that didn’t want to do as I told them. I put the sofa back and lay in my bed with eyes closed when Dad put his head in to check on me. Then I looked up the address of the hospits place on Google maps on my phone. It was maybe two miles from school.

    In the morning, Dad dropped me off at the school crossing, and I simply walked to the hospits instead. The sign said, “Peacehaven Hospice.” Well, that makes no more sense than hospits. I had my story ready, my guts in a knot and my feet in a tangle.

    No one at the front desk.

    Signs pointed to room numbers. I followed “1-25.”

    A blue-gowned lady marched toward me. “Yes?” she said.

    “I… my mother’s in Room 14. Dad’s just locking the car.”

    She let me pass. Phew.

    14. Bare white square with a bed. In the bed, a yellow skull, no hair, not even eyebrows. Two yellow stick arms on the white sheet.

    Big brown eyes in the skull look at me. The mouth opens, and Mom’s voice comes out: “George! My love!”

    And the stick arms are around me and we’re both crying and she smells wrong but it’s Mom and I hold the skinny body under the sheet and won’t let go.

    “Oh George, I so missed you!”

    “I wanted to come, but nobody told me.”

    “You’re here now. I can say goodbye.”

    “No. NO! Say hallo, and stay. Get better.”

    “I wish. But the doctors have given up on me.”

    “What do they know? Mom, live. For me. Fight it, whatever it is.”

    “Darling, I had a nasty thing start in my breast. Now it’s got away and I have lumps everywhere. It’s in my liver, that’s why I’m this color, and lots of other places.”

    “I want you to get better. Mom, forget the doctors. Forget the lumps. Just close your eyes and hold me, and think of being at home. With me and Dad. Be there. Remember the creak in the third step? The smell of coffee in the kitchen?”

    I feel her body go soft and still.

    “Look, I’ll do a magic trick. Feel my hands? I’m passing magic missiles into you and they look for the lump things and kill them. Feel the lumps dying? Feel yourself getting better? Keep feeling the missiles going through you. They don’t hurt you because they’re magic guided missiles, they just hunt the lumps and blast them. Feel it. Feel it, Mom, in your liver, wherever there are lumps they’re running scared but they can’t get away from my magic missiles. And…”

    There is a noise. The door opens and I move away from Mom. A man in a white coat says, “Anne, I came to check if you need something for pain again.”

    Mom looks at him, looks at me, back at him again. “Sam, meet my darling son, George. But, you know, I don’t feel any pain at all for the moment. What I feel is hungry. Do you think…”

    Mom is eating some yellow slop when Dad walks in. Too late to hide.

    “George! What…”

    “Oh, hi Dad! I’ve come to help Mom get better.”

    They look at each other, the “Kids!” look, so I have to yell at them. “Listen, Mom and Dad, listen! You’ve got to believe me! Look, Mom, when was the last time you felt hungry?”

    Their eyes change. The three of us are caught in a glow. We are one. My heart hurts with joy.

    Time has stopped, but at last Mom says, “George, I can feel it. Thank you, my love. I am going to live.”

That’s how.

Please let me know if what I have written here makes sense, and if you are a writer, whether you found it helpful. Then do visit the founts of wisdom who are my round robin partners:

Skye Taylor
Connie Vines
Diane Bator
Marci Baun
Victoria Chatham
A.J. Maguire
Fiona Mcgier
Anne Stenhouse
Helena Fairfax
Judith Copek

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
This entry was posted in Rhobin's round robin, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Breathing Life into your Characters

  1. Connie Vines says:

    Dr. Bob, George’s story was so heartbreaking real.
    I found the final scene to be the first step in George’s dealing with grief and loss.
    Thank you for the timely post. Connie


  2. Hi Bob, it’s a really interesting question about how much description of a character’s appearance to give. Personally I love to give a description. But it’s surprising how little is needed, and how much the reader can fill in. Apparently Tolstoy gave no description of Anna Karenina at all except that she had ‘plump hands’.
    I’ve really enjoyed this month’s topic again. Thanks for the interesting post!


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thanks Helena. I have an old post about this but couldn’t find it in a quick search. My idea of a frightening policeman may be the exact appearance of your beloved uncle, so it’s better for me to report his behaviour and allow you to generate his looks.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Marci says:

    What poignant stories—both the case history and the child.

    Personally, I prefer description of characters, even if it’s hair/eye color. But I think this stems from the fact I write in the romance genre. So much of the story depends upon the chemistry of the main characters and that relies heavily on instant attraction. This requires physical descriptions. Also, I believe that the women, and men, who read the romances like to physically identify with them. It’s why there are curvy romances, New Adult romances, midlife romances, etc.

    Of course, we also enjoy the description of a hot man. 🤪

    This is not to say that I didn’t visualize the boy and his mother or their living room.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Marci.
      Sometimes a physical description is important. In my Doom Healer stories, it is essential that my hero’s father has brown eyes, their mother blue, so that goes in. But mostly I give the reader the option of visualizing the perfect person to fill this role, however incorrect they may have got it. 🙂


  4. Victoria Chatham says:

    George has it bang on how adults usually treat children when there is a problem. Even very young children can pick up on tension in their families. The trick is explaining what is wrong in a way they will understand, much like the way in which authors present some of their characters to their readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. fionamcgier says:

    Re: kids believing in magic–my only two grandbabies live 2 states away, so we only get to see them a few times a year. Once we retire, we hope we’ll see them more often. But one time we’d been sitting around a campfire in their backyard, the kids eating s’mores. It was time for them to go to bed, and their daddy told them we’d be gone by the time they got up in the morning. So the older boy who was about 4, gave me a huge hug, squeezing me so tightly, and mumbled something. I told him I love him. When he was back in the house, his daddy (our son) told me that he was squeezing “hug magic” into me, which his mom told him would keep the other person safe until he sees them again. Of course I cried. Those are the kinds of “real moment” that make up lives, and it’s that we have to create for our characters.


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you Fiona. George’s magic worked (this is actually how “spontaneous remissions” can happen), so hopefully your grandbaby’s magic worked too.


  6. Skye-writer says:

    I love the questions you ask your characters. I’m going to add them to the interview I always have with my imaginary people. I do spend more time creating them, but they still order me around once the story is underway. Clearly they know where they are going better than I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Skye-writer says:

    I love the questions you ask your characters. I’m going to add them to the interview I always have with my imaginary people. I do spend more time creating them, but they still order me around once the story is underway. Clearly they know where they are going better than I do.


  8. Hi Bob, Thank you for the case history and the story, too. I liked the questions, “What’s wrong with you/what’s right with you. May use that. Anne


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