At an author’s private consultation today (one benefit of signing up for a weekly Writer’s Workshop group) we discussed how to bring characters alive. We examined one character, in particular, the protagonist and narrator of a fabulous set of travelogues-as-culture-studies. As readers in our group, we learned a lot about the world visited by this protagonist — the main character, if you will. The character’s observations were so sharp that they sparked a desire to see the character vulnerable, flawed, human and humane.

Not every such character who leads a story needs to be sympathetic. But if you write in first person, early in your career with fiction, you may well discover you want the reader to like your main character. The irony is that the less perfect they appear, the move sympathetic the characters can be perceived. It’s easier to accomplish if a reader can see a character’s flaws and favorites.

This is a habit I bring from my time on stage. In the theatre we had to build a character from dialogue and situation, and little else. It prompted us to create backstory, preferences, insights and overlooked habits. For a main character in a story, this is work well worth pursuing.

I have a character notebook where I work on this for Viral Times. Just a couple of pages at a time about each of the main players. What’s in their fridge most of the time, which TV shows they watched as kids. What the names of their grandparents are. Religion, politics, shoe style preference, sports team allegiance, artist the the greatest number of songs in their collection. The list can go on and on. As the travelogue’s author said today, “and it doesn’t even have to go into the story.”

Precisely. Where it goes is into the writer’s head and heart, to make the character alive even when the writing is not happening with pen on page, hands on keyboard. Make a list of what characters like and dislike to bring them to life.

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