Being a Better Writer: Letting Characters Live

This post was originally written and posted September 1st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Still off the grid in Alaska. This post was uploaded ahead of time for your viewing pleasure.

Welcome back! I’m alive again! And feeling all the better after getting some solid sleep over the weekend at long last. One would think I’d be wise enough to let myself get some sleep while sick, but experience is proving that this isn’t the case. And on another positive side, I’ve finally joined the ranks of those who watch Gravity Falls! Which is enjoyable. There have actually been a few moments that have reminded me of the older seasons of The Simpsons with their attention to clever, careful jokes, including a season 1 brick joke that had me cracking up late at night.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a new show, I recommend it. Think Disney does the X-files, and if that sounds cool, give it a go. Now, onto today’s topic…

…which is kind of a nebulous one, so I’m going to tackle it as best I can. The topic is: letting characters live.

Originally, this stems way, way back from when I asked for suggestions on new topics to tackle. One of you wanted to see my thoughts on letting characters live, or, in other words, on how to let characters act alive and like real people rather than cardboard cutouts.

Not exactly an easy topic, because there’s no “one” thing that you can do in order to succeed here. And there’s no fluid way either. As I tried to put together a flowing list of sections to cover with this topic, things kept falling apart on me because it was hard to pin down a natural “do X then do Y” progression with this sort of concept.

So then, with that said, where do we start?

We start with a problem, not a solution. In my own experience, there is one thing that authors do more than anything else that leads to the creation of an array of characters that can be said not to live.

They don’t let their characters make their own choices.

Oh, choices are made, surely. There might be choice to go into a shack, or a choice to embark on a car chase. But the choices are not the choices of the character. Instead, they’re the choices of the plot. The author has a fixed vision of the story in their mind—even if they’re making it up as they go—and the characters are just there for the ride. The focus of the book is the plot: The scenes, the events, the stuff that’s going to happen to the characters. The characters are just sitting in the car and along for the ride. Their own choices matter about as little as the reader’s.

We’ve all read a book or watched a movie where this happens. And with these stories, the characters don’t really live. You could stick any other character into their place and you would still get the same story. Their own personality, their own desires and thoughts … None of this matters because they’re not the focus. And so they don’t feel alive.

Now, there’s a reason for this. Writing a story in which a character is allowed to make their own choices is risky because the story that you planned for may instead go in a completely unexpected direction. A lot of authors set out to write a story with a fixed sequence of events, and when you start letting your character have some influence over those events, inevitably things start to change. The story you wanted to tell might not be the story that comes out.

This is a risk you’ll have to take if you want to have living characters. Living characters, the ones who have their own hopes, goals, and complexities, who will not simply jump into the prescribed path you want for them. In order to live, they need the freedom to act, not be acted upon. Your characters cannot simply be reactionaries, shuttled from sequence to sequence to arrive at a preconceived point. You’ve heard the term “earn your happy ending?” Well, there’s more to it than just making sure your characters have to experience hardship. They need to make their own choices as well, in order to reach that “happy ending.”

Of course, simply giving your characters choice isn’t enough. With choice comes responsibility, and a consequence, and once again, as an author, you need to recognize this. Again, we’ve all probably read the story where the characters are given “choices” but in the end they’re nothing more than an illusion. This is the result of an author who started on the path of giving their characters choices … but soon realized that this meant giving up the preconceived ending that they wanted to write so badly. And so you end up with a story where the characters have an illusion of choice, but nothing they do actually matters. Regardless of what they “choose” the author will step in and change the game so that the result they want will always occur, like a fixer stacking the deck. Do the players choose what cards to play? Sure, but the house is making sure that the players only have a very limited selection, or worse, can only make one “choice.”

So, with choice comes responsibility and consequence (if you’re seeing parallels to real life here, well yeah, that’s kind of the point). Not only are you going to need to let your characters choose which path to take, but you’re going to need to let them then walk that path … and all that comes from it, good or bad.

This is a hard one for some people to accept. A lot of new authors seem to have a fear of letting their characters fail, or seem less than perfect. In fact, some readers have the same problem. One of the more surprising (to me, at least) points of conflict between readers of Rise was the reaction to Steel and Cappy’s awkward relationship. There was a very vocal subset of readers (on Tumblr of all places, which automatically raises warning flags anyway) who were very disappointed with the continual array of bad choices the two made; Steel with his stoic silence and self-deception, and Cappy with her fears of rejection. There were a number of readers who absolutely despised seeing a relationship where the two characters made stupid mistakes and then got a full-force dose of the consequences of their own actions. There’s even a note on the TV Tropes page from one reader who was miffed that Luna, who knew what was going on, just didn’t step in a fix the problem for everyone.

Thing is, I’m still of the opinion that either action (quiet resolution or Luna stepping in) would have weakened the character of both. Because Cappy and Steel’s interactions, the awkward stumbles that build to a not-quite-perfect-but-trying relationship, is are both entirely real and of their own making. It’s a real scenario that’s played out among real people in the real world hundreds of times a day. Couples not talking to one another, not trusting each other, or holding back things they should be sharing … are they poor choices? Well, yes. But in the case of Cappy and Steel, both were their own choices, and what readers ultimately felt uncomfortable with, I think, was that both of them ended up experiencing the consequences of their own choices almost in full. Fortunately for them, once a little pressure was applied and some of that reasoning broke, they cleaned things up pretty well, but again, through their own choices.

Consequences are often an uncomfortable subject, because consequences generally imply failure or failing to most people. But we can’t ignore them, and a character who ignores or doesn’t suffer from consequences of their choices is a character who doesn’t seem real. Letting our characters make their own choices, even wrong ones, and then experience the consequences of them, is essential for letting our characters feel alive. Real life is a series of choices, and if we don’t let our characters make them the way we do, and then experience the consequences, then they aren’t really alive. Which brings me to another facet of a living character that we need to discuss, a result of consequence.


Even if we do let our characters make their own choices, even if we include the consequences of those actions, these still won’t amount to much unless we let out character grow and change from them.

Our characters need to grow within our story. Not just at the ending. No, if your character only changes or grows at the end of your work, than you haven’t created a living character. For that, your character needs to change throughout the work, making choices, experiencing the consequences and then growing as a result of those consequences.

This, of course, only makes your writing more difficult to plan for. You have plot points you’re going to work towards, and now you’ll have to account for a character growing and changing over the course of the story, which means that a decision they would make at the beginning of the story may not be the same decision they’d make at the end. Makes things a bit tricky. And sometimes, just as with choices, it can make some plot points different entirely.

But don’t scrap it. Character growth as a process and result of the character’s choices is something that will help bring a real sense of life into your character and your world. Let your characters choose, let them suffer the consequence—good or bad—of that choice, and then let them change as a result. One of the reasons we don’t like deus ex machina is as a result of this pattern. A deus ex machina chops off the last two bits of the equation, leaving our characters less developed.

All right, so there are some things you can do to make your characters more lively. Let them make choices. Let them suffer the consequences. And then, let them grow. But are there other things you can do to make a character seem alive, even with a side character or a one-shot appearance?

Sure, and in this case we hearken back to some of my tenants of character design. Give them quirks. Give them hobbies. Give them a history. Even a character who only shows up as a side character in a moment can be made memorable and real by giving them a few specific details that will not only stand out but resonate with a reader. And while just a few interesting details might make for a flat character in a long run, for a character who only appears once or twice, such details can still make him seem like a real person.

For example, I’ll use a side character from Dead Silver: Charlie. Charlie is the curator for the Silver Dreams Museum, and so when I introduced him I set about giving him a few specific details. He’s older. Overweight (since he runs a museum pretty much on his own). Talks with a sort of false-accent. He tends to ramble about the history of the town and clearly has a deep love of it, though that love isn’t shared by many other people. Later on in the story, and depressingly enough, the reader learns that he’s a heavy drinker, likely as a way of coping with a thankless job that no one but himself seems to care for.

While Charlie is nothing more than a side character with only a few appearances in the story, I set about giving him some character in those few appearances, character that would seem real, right down to choice and consequence (his sole devotion to the museum turns to depressed drinking which in turn becomes something else later on). It’s small, and not particularly important to the story itself, but it serves to make him a memorable character who seems like someone a reader could know.

There are other ways that other authors can come up with characters that seem alive, but to me, those are the core elements. You let the characters make their own decisions, let them stumble about and deal with the consequences, and then let them grow because of it. You give them quirks and character that stem from their history and their choices, allow the two to work together in tandem with the plot of the story and work towards an ultimate end, even if you yourself aren’t that sure what it will be.

But thing is, that’s life. We’re never certain of where our own choices will take us. Likewise, we can never be certain of where a character’s choices will take us either. We just have to start out with a rough plan for things and let our characters muddle through it.

Is it a little disorganized? Yeah. Can it take us in some unexpected directions we hadn’t planned on? Of course. Is it going to mean extra work? Definitely.

But will it be worth it in the end?


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