Five Steps for Bringing Your Character to Life – With Guest Author Audrey Furnas

Writing an excellent book is no small task.

One way to make a good novel great is by having fantastic characters. Readers might be riveted by your plot. They might be fascinated by your premise. Your prose might shine beautifully. Or you might have the most vivid set dressings. But if a reader finds your characters flat or unrealistic, you’ll have a hard time winning them over.

People care about characters. That’s half the battle. To help you with crafting your characters, author Audrey Furnas breaks down five tips to help you on your hero’s journey of character development.

Five Steps for Bringing Your Character to Life

By Audrey Furnas

Memorable characters. That’s the dream. Am I right? We all want to pen the next dashing Mr. Darcy or clever Hermione Granger. We want to create characters that are so dear and real that people talk about them at the dinner table. Miss them when they’re gone. Beg for more.

But, before readers can form bonds with our characters, those characters must exist. We have to breathe life into them. And creating life, as we all know, takes some time, some work, and probably a few stretch marks.

I used to hate this part—the people-making. I thought it worked a particular way. You got a vague idea for a character and then completed one of those bullet lists of character traits that ask things like hair color, height, education, ticks and pet peeves. Fill in all the bullets and bam! a character is born… I’d get a third of the way through the list, and my brain would lock. How should I know what grades this person made in middle school? We’ve never met before. I’d start contemplating how important it really was to write a story with people in it.

Don’t get me wrong. Those resume-type lists can be very helpful, and many authors thrive on them. If you do, keep that as a part of your process. But for anyone who needs another way like I did or who wants additional tools, I’m here to share my process—the fairy godmother dust I use to turn my characters human.

Step One: Who gets to go to this ball?

First things first: Invitations. Figure out what roles you need to fill in your story. Readers have expectations! You want them to read more of your stuff, so don’t disappoint them. Take it from someone who’s been disappointed. Prioritize your readers by doing your research, and you’ll grow your audience much easier.

So how do you know what the readers of your genre expect?

Become a reader of your genre! The more stories you read, the more the patterns will become obvious. I know what you’re thinking. That will take way too long. But carve out a few months for this exploration, and you’ll save yourself lots of time and tears on the back end. Trust me on this. The entire foundation of your book is built on the success of this first step.

Once you’ve done your research, and you’ve got a list of who you want in your story, you’re ready for step two.

Step Two: What Mice Do You Have to Work With?

This step is simple and fun. Look around. Who interests you?

This can be people you know or strangers that have caught your eye or even celebrities (definitely celebrities). Would whatever you find interesting about them fit into the story you’re telling?

You can borrow personality traits, physical attributes, or mannerisms and inject those into your characters. Turn these real-world inspirations from mice into carriage drivers. In my book My Totally Sparked New Year, I had one side character that was falling flat. His dialogue was generic. The descriptions of him were lacking. I couldn’t really see him. Until I thought of a neighbor whose personality was a great fit for the role. Drawing on this tangible image in my head, my character started to breathe and think and transform on the page.

Now, you do have to be careful here. You want to let real people inspire your characters, not be them. If a person is liable to guess that your character is based on them, that gets awkward. And sometimes hurtful. You haven’t changed things enough. Don’t damage your personal relationships (or risk legal trouble). Put some interesting parts of people into your characters, but make sure your characters are distinct.

So, now you’ve got a list of character roles and some interesting traits about each of them. If this were a casting call, you’d have the headshots and a few adjectives about them scribbled on the back. Now things are about to get really good…

Step Three: What Gown are They Going to the Ball in?

And by gown, I don’t mean physical appearance. I mean their personality type. Readers like types. We all do. So give each of your characters one. Is she prim and proper? Is he a worrier?

I find it best to keep things simple here. For this reason, I don’t use the Myers-Briggs personality types. You need a Ph-D to understand those. But if you’re smart and can keep them all straight, go for it. What works for me is the Enneagram. It’s easy, and it’s also based around a person’s motivation, which I feel is key for understanding how your characters will behave.

I give all my characters Enneagram types and come back to them time and again as I draft. My main character, Adia, from my Holiday Girl series is “The Helper” type. She responds to conflict by sacrificing herself to it. Her best friend, Brooke, is “The Achiever” type, so Brooke responds to conflict as if it’s a challenge. Say their party dessert just fell on the floor. Adia’s going to stay up all night baking another one. Brooke’s going to run to the store and buy a bigger, better cake. Give your characters one little tag and you’ll see them start to differentiate from each other and connect with readers in unique ways.

If you haven’t dipped your toes into the Enneagram pool, there are a ton of great podcasts on the subject. I’ve also found the book Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagram to be a very helpful and quick read.

Step Four: The Four Magic Pixie Dust Ingredients

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received is that every character in your story should have something that they want. It should be present in your mind every time they show up on the page. Knowing what each character wants (and by extension what is keeping them from getting it) will not only help your writing free-flow, it will shape the plot and story itself.

This stage is kind of like a first date. The character has caught your eye; you think they’re cute. Now, you get to peel back the mask and get to know who they actually are. I “date” any character that has an impact on the story whether through dialogue or action. I ask them all four questions (which I got from the wonderful and wise K.M. Weiland on her blog “Helping Writers Become Authors”):

1. What is your story goal? (figure out what they want)

2. What is your motivation? (figure out why they want it)

3. What is the lie you believe? (figure out what they are telling themselves that keeps them from getting what they want)

4. What is your biggest flaw? (how do they act as a result of the lie and/or wound from their past)

For a deep dive into these character questions, I highly recommend reading The Weiland’s blog post “Creating Complex Supporting Characters”, or, better yet, her book Crafting Unforgettable Characters.

Step Five: Deep Dive into Fairyland

Now you have your cast. They have faces, personalities, and goals. They are ready to fly out of your fingertips. Almost. There is one last big step: courting your lead characters. One date isn’t enough to get people to fall in love with your hero. You need to get to know him or her on an elemental level. What makes her tick? What are the dark corners of his past? Where do they go when they’re hurt?

At this point, you can go back for one of those bullet lists of traits I mentioned at the beginning of this article. There are dozens on the internet. Search around and find one that gets your juices flowing. For me, even at this stage I find these lists creatively stunting, so I take a different approach. I deep dive into my main characters’ heads by going through a list of blueprints for those characters. Once I have these plans, my characters become so alive, I can practically hear their hearts beating. Where are these fantastical blueprints, you ask? Check out the “33 Ways to Write Stronger Characters” blog post on the Well-Storied blog for a game-changing character exploration.

And there you have it, folks! All my secrets for character development. That’s how I fairy godmother my stories. Of course, every writer has their own process, so these steps may not be right for you. Or maybe only some are. Use what you want and ditch the rest. But either way, enjoy making your characters dance off the page and into the hearts of readers the world around.

Good luck! I’m rooting for you!

More about Audrey

Audrey Furnas is an author of new adult romance novels that are set in and around a fictitious college called Avery University. She caught the writing bug in her late twenties, after testing out a story idea on a whim. Her first published novel, a contemporary holiday romance titled My Totally Elfed Christmas, debuted in the fall of 2020. And the sequel, My Totally
Sparked New Year
, was released in the winter of 2021. Her books are centered around relationships because she thinks books are great therapy and love is the best medicine.
Audrey likes to walk everywhere she can manage, especially when it ends with a Target run. She takes way too long to drink a cup of tea, and she can’t resist a fuzzy sock. You can learn more about who she is and what she’s writing by visiting audreyfurnas.com and joining her newsletter.

My Totally Sparked New Year is available now!

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