Breathing Life into a Character

Posted by Jess
In order for the reader to believe your character is real, the character must first be real to you.

This is something that I was struggling with when I started writing my book. I knew what my characters looked like. I knew all of their motives, desires, their backgrounds, but I was having a hard time finding their voice, especially when it came to my main character, who happens to be the narrator. You can see how this was a huge problem. Every day, I read article after article about character development, but no matter how much I learned, I still couldn't find my main character's voice (her name is Kits). I knew everything about her, yet I felt as if I knew nothing at all. She wasn't real to me, she was just a two dimensional character.

Then one day it hit me: What's the best way to really get to know someone? You become their friend. The answer was that simple. I know how to make friends, I thought, I do it all the time. So, I set out to become best friends with the main character of my book. And it turned out to be much harder than I thought. Mostly because I felt silly talking to an invisible person, even if I wasn't speaking out loud. Eventually, I got over it. I came to revel in the silliness of it all, and now Kits is a living and breathing person within my story.

So how did I do this? Well, here's how my process usually goes. First I imagine what she looks like. Her hair, skin, eyes, nose and mouth. Is she wearing jeans and a tank top, or is she in a dress? (Of course it's not a dress. She only has one dress and she hates it.) Once I have the image of her in my thoughts, I say: "Hey Kits?"
"Yea Jess." Is how she usually responds.
"Can you tell me your story?" I ask. Or sometimes I say, "What do you want to talk about today?" Or "Let's talk about Nate," or some other character in the book. Then I wait, and I wait, until she finally answers. Sometimes I have to coax her with a different question, but if you're patient, your character will eventually answer you.

Sometimes I take her around with me. I show her places, and we talk. Obviously not out loud. Don't quote me, but people will probably think you're crazy if you walk around talking to someone that only you can see, even though you know you're just talking to the star of your new book. (Well technically it's their book because it's their story. They're just using us to write it. Kits and I talk about this sometimes, she never wants to give me any credit.)

Anyways, when I was first getting to know her, I just walked around with her in my head all day. I sat her character development notebook in the passenger seat of my car and pretended that she was riding next to me. This is what happened the first day I tried this:
First we went to Smoothie King. I usually get the same thing (a strawberry shredder or a chocolate lean one), but today I decided to let her choose. A couple walked into the store behind me, but I let them order first. I read each description on the large wall of options, while asking Kits if any of them sounded good to her, however, I couldn't get a feel of what she wanted. Or perhaps she's just as indecisive as I am. The couple orders, and I briefly tune into their conversation with the guy behind the register.
"Are you two sisters?" he says.
They laugh. "No, this is my wife."
"Oh! I just thought, because you look a lot alike," he says quickly.
The women laugh. 
"I'll take it," one says. "It's better than what we usually get. Most people ask if I'm her mother."
I grin as they all laugh. The couple takes a seat and now it's my time to order. Only, Kits hasn't decided yet. And if she has, then she didn't tell me, or perhaps I wasn't listening. 
"You look so confused," says the guy behind the register.
I glance at him and then laugh. "Yea, I'm having a hard time choosing."
"Maybe I can help. What kind of taste are you looking for?"
"The gladiator is always a good choice!" says one of the ladies from the table.  
"Yea, I love the gladiators." I turn to them with a smile. Then I decide to fill them in on my process.
"I usually get the same thing, but I'm writing a book and I'm trying to get to know my character, so I decided to choose one that she would get. But, I'm having a hard time figuring that out."
"Oh wow," says one of the ladies.
"That's cool," said the other.
"Well, tell me about this character," says the guy behind the register. I later found out that his name was Tim. 
I give him, and the ladies, a brief description of Kits' story.... which she later told me I completely butchered. 
"Definitely the Strawberry Lemon Twist!" One lady says as soon as I finish speaking.
"Yea, that or the angel food," says her wife.
I look at both choices, and the strawberry lemon twist seems to stand out, so I ask Kits if that's the one she wants. I couldn't really hear what she was saying because I was still getting used to having her in my head, but it felt right so I ordered it.
The lady gives me a thumbs up and I smile. 
I then chat with Tim as he makes Kits' smoothie. "I would love to read your book when you're done," he says.
I always get excited when strangers are eager to read my story even though it's not even finished.
I learned that Tim's passion is music, "But I just realized I have the gift of teaching," he says. He told me that he wanted to write a book about love based off of teachings from the bible. He asked me if I would be interested in coauthoring it with him. 
I bashfully laughed and said, "Oh, I'm not that good yet." I wanted to tell him that I was struggling to get the words out of my own story and that most of what I wrote was a mess, and that my book was about assassins, so I'm not sure I'm person he wants to help.
"I'm sure you're better than you think," he says.
He asked me for some advice on writing and this is what I told him:
"Just write it down. What ever scene, thought, lesson or idea comes into your head, write it. It doesn't have to be eloquent, just make sure you get it all down. Most of my notes sound like an illiterate child wrote it." I'm exaggerating, kind of. He laughed. 
"The point is to get the ideas down. Then go back later and rewrite them how you would actually say it. Eventually all of your notes will start connecting and forming your story."

Anyways, when it was time to pay my bill, I tried to hand him my debit card, but he wouldn't take it. He watched the front door open and close as the couple left. His eyes then set on mine and he smiled. "Those ladies just paid for your drink."
My lips spread into the biggest smile, and I could feel Kits smiling too. Wow. That was so nice of them. I left a tip in the jar, and then Kits and I made our way out. 

She loved the smoothie by the way. It was a little too sweet for me, but once I broke through to her I realized what she really liked was the tartness of the lemon, which mellowed out the sweetness. I drank the entire thing. When we got to Barnes and Nobel, I didn't even make it inside because Kits had begun telling me her story. I could see it through her eyes and feel what she felt. I wrote in the car for hours. 

Check out the post below to find out what happened while I was writing in the Barnes and Nobel parking lot.... it was so random!

Also, let me know in the comments what techniques you use for breathing life into your characters. 

Until next time,

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