Round Robin – Breathing Life Into Your Characters

Breathing Life Into Your Characters is this month’s topic and, truly, what could be more important?

How many readers of my vintage remember the blatant use of stereotyping, the two-dimensional nature of supporting characters – and even of some protagonists – and the over-arching descriptions such as ‘a used-car salesman’/’ a silly schoolgirl’/ ‘a hospital matron’?

My first step is always to hear their voice. Are they struggling to find the right word or are they articulate with a confidence to match? Are they using vocabulary suitable for an age and situation in life? Do they copy their ‘betters’ or mimic those further down the social scale? Can they be heard first time or do they mumble?

Once I can hear their voices, I can flesh out the rest. Does an elderly man mumble because he needs new dentures? If he needs new dentures, is he neglected or too poor? Is he not bothered? Is he living in a dystopian world where there are no dental technicians? Will the arrival in the family group of a person who sees this issue with a professional eye, stir up trouble for those who didn’t? Causing guilt, perhaps, or resentment? It’s a tiny example of how I see plot arising out of character.

Does a servant girl use longer words than her employer thinks appropriate to her situation in life? Will that tension undermine her position? Does a character use dialect? Does the use of dialect demean a character in the eyes of the more fashionable?

These characters, captured on a London visit a few years ago, are in need of having life breathed into them – or are they? Their demeanour is very clearly active and, probably, aggressive. The sculptor has brought all that to life with few embellishments beyond the weapons raised in their hands.

I would want to add clothing, hair and accessories. While heavy description slows the pace, a few well chosen touches tell us so much about the character. A man might question his child closely about what they are going to spend some money he is handing over on. It could be a downpayement on an apprenticeship, for example. Once the child leaves the room, perhaps the father turns to his wife and asks her to pass him a bit of cardboard. Maybe he then cuts out a sole shaped piece and, taking off his shoe to slide it into place, remarks that there’s another year gone by when he won’t be able to afford the latest style. Does his wife resent this situation on his behalf? Perhaps on her own? Another way in which plot spins from character.

Another useful tool for creating memorable characters is behaviour and mannerisms. Do they have any tics? Do they constantly check the time on their wristwatch/phone/station clock? Do they stay to the back of a group and absorb energy from others? Do they put themselves forward and lead? Are they reactionary? If a character cannot stand still – are they frustrated dancers or athletes or do they have a developing neurological condition? Or do they just need to go to the bathroom?

People watching is probably my best advice to the creative writing student. Find a comfy seat and watch the characters wander/ run/ march/ saunter/ scramble past. Your stories are out there.

My fellow robins, listed below, have also recorded some thoughts on this issue. I’m sure we’ll find something of interest there, too.


Anne Stenhouse

Judith Copek

Connie Vines

Diane Bator

Dr. Bob Rich

Fiona McGier

Marci Baun

Victoria Chatham

A.J. Maguire

Skye Taylor

Helena Fairfax