How To Write Characters Who Feel Alive Beyond The Limitations Of Your Story

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The characters of your story are the main draw for your audience. Your plot and world can be fascinating, but if the characters are flat, the story will feel flat. Characters who feel alive make your story feel real, and that makes it more exciting for your audience.

A key way to write characters who feel alive is by making it clear that they don’t only exist within the walls of your story. They lived before, they’ll live after, and they have lives that spread beyond the tiny part you’re exploring in your plot. I’ll explore how to write characters who feel alive.

Characters Who Feel Alive Lived Before Your Story Began

The truth of your characters is that, of course, they aren’t real. They were created to service the story you’re writing, they have no lives prior to your choice to explore your plot. Their lives begin as your story begins. However, your characters need to feel real so your audience can emotionally invest in them. If they don’t feel real, and therefore there’s no emotional connection, your story won’t feel important.

To make it feel like your characters were alive before Chapter One, you need to develop their backstory. You might never explore it, never write it, but it’s there. You, as the writer, need to know that life because it will shape and change your character. So you can write them with that history in mind.

Every major event in our lives leaves a mark on us. An emotional bruise. It changes us as people and how we respond to things in the future. Your characters should start your stories marked. Whether it’s a painful divorce, the loss of a parent, or betrayal by a friend. There is pain in their past. And emotional bruise that can be poked and stir up feelings that mean you’re creating characters who feel alive. Not just blank slates.

Characters Who Feel Alive Will Live On After Your Story Ends

The end of your story isn’t the end of your character’s lives. Well, for some it is if you kill them, but for the ones who survive they will go on. That means you cannot wrap up every single thread in their story. Let some questions go unanswered.

The main conflict of your story needs a satisfying resolution. You cannot end on a cliffhanger and expect your audience to come back for more unless this is already a well established series. However, threads should be left loose, even if you’re not planning a sequel.

Life isn’t a neat package. Life doesn’t resolve every single conflict at the same moment. There will be hopes and dreams that exist even if the story goal has been satisfied. Aspirations that have not yet been achieved, pain that hasn’t yet healed. The End of your story doesn’t mean the end of their lives, it just means the end of that story specific conflict. So make it clear that they will live on, want more, do more.

Conflict Outside Of Your Main Storyline

Your story follows your Protagonist setting out to achieve a story goal, and set against your Antagonist who wants to achieve the opposite. That’s the reason you’re exploring this snapshot of their lives. You start at the Inciting Incident, when your Protagonist becomes active, and finish when the conflict is resolved. So, obviously, that conflict will take the main focus.

However, both your main characters, and the characters circling your main characters, have more going on than this one story. There are multiple goals at all times in all scenes. However much a police officer wants to catch a robber, they also want other things. They will want to rest, to eat, to do well in their career, to see their friends, to fall in love. We aren’t just one trick ponies focused on one single thing. We are a mixture of constant wants and needs, all competing for our attention and to be satisfied.

Make it clear that, as well as your story goal, every single character has wants and needs. Your side characters are on their own journeys and pursuing their own goals. You won’t explore them all, or see them all resolved, but they’ll impact what those characters are doing. They’ll change what they choose to focus on or talk about, their moods and their thoughts. Characters who feel alive have hopes, dreams and goals beyond those which are focused on for your plot.

Why Characters Who Feel Alive Will Improve Your Story

When we consume a story, logically we know it’s not real. However, our emotions will override it. Stories that feel real can make us laugh, cry, be frightened, be hopeful. If it doesn’t feel real, you won’t feel those emotions. You won’t experience that kind of connection because the artificial quality acts as a wall between audience and story. By making your characters feel like real human beings who your audience is experiencing the life of, you’re breaking that wall down. Your characters will matter so your story will matter.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get. If you’ve found my work helpful, please consider dropping me a tip in my Paypal tip jar to help me keeping bringing you free writing advice!

How To Write Characters Who Feel Alive, Writing Advice With JJ Barnes
Books By JJ Barnes

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I'm author, writer, screenwriter and filmmaker. I've always been passionate about stories, both on the page and on the screen, and now I'm lucky enough that I've been able to turn that passion into a career.

Myfirst novel, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit was the first release from Siren stories and launched the Siren Stories Universe (the SSU). Now there are multiple stories, on page and screen, all connected and exploring the world I first began to develop all those years ago. Find all my books here.

Hollowhood, the first independent film from myself and my writing partner, Jonathan McKinney, is currently in post-production. Making my own film has been an incredible experience and only affirmed my love of all things to do with film. From the camera to the costumes, I will always love everything about being on set.

As well as releasing my own stories, I'm hoping to spread love and passion for the art of story telling to others, by guiding you through different aspect of writing. I do a series of Writing Advice videos for adults, and a Creative Writing For Kids series, both on YouTube. I'm also releasing regular Writing Advice blog posts explaining different writing techniques and advice for how to get the most out of your writing experience.

Other than writing, my life is mostly spent with my partner, Jonathan McKinney, our three children, Rose, Ezekiel and Buffy, and our extremely foolish Springer Spaniel, Molly.

I love reading books, watching TV, and falling asleep during movies. When Jon comes to bed he usually finds me face down with my face on a book, or hiding under the duvet waiting for him to protect me because I've got myself in a dither reading a ghost story.

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