WWW: Breathing Life into Characters

>> Wednesday, May 6, 2009

There are a lot of ways to bring a character to life. Dialog is a favorite of mine but it's far from the only one. Descriptions can be helpful as can knowing what's going on inside one's brain. Sometimes it's an attitude or a particular trait that instantly brings someone to life, that calls to a reader to identify someone, good or bad, with only a few words.

Of course, in real life, people are all too quick to decide how they feel about someone based on a sentence or a look or gender or race or accent. However, a writer can play on stereotypes to make an impression (though, when I do that, I prefer to twist that later so you realize there's more there), but making someone come alive with only a few well-chosen sentences is a skill that can help all kinds of fiction, even some nonfiction, short or long.

Take James Herriot, who was, in my opinion a master at the reminiscent anecdote and at bringing characters to life.

"Oooh, I never 'thought you were such a 'eartless man, Mr. Herriot." Her chin trembled and she looked up at me reproachfully.

"But, Mrs. Beck," I said. "I assure you I'm not being in the least heartless. I just cannot carry out a major operation on your cat for ten shillings."

"Well, I thought you would've done it for a poor widder woman like me."

I regarded her thoughtfully, taking in the small compact figure, the healthy cheeks, the neat helmet of grey hair pulled tightly in a bun. Was she really a poor widow? There was cause for doubt. Her next-door neighbor in Rayton village was a confirmed skeptic.
There's a wealth of information on Mrs. Beck in those few short sentences, not specifics of what she looked like (though there are few of those), but a great deal about who Mrs. Beck is. And, given James Herriot's gifts, I could have pulled a passage from nearly any page in the book (All Things Wise and Wonderful)

Here's a snippet from one of the books I haven't finished yet (with a younger version of my husband as the main character):
Personally, Lofar wasn’t sure it was magic at all. He thought it was more attitude: ‘I’m supposed to be here, so look elsewhere.’ Actually, a lot of magic was like that, more attitude than magic. That might be another reason that, once Lofar learned a spell, he could always perform it better than Keldron himself. Lofar had attitude and he knew how to use it.

That’s how he got to be Keldron’s apprentice in the first place. He’d been five years old, abandoned, a waif of a beggar who had marched directly up to Keldron in his black and silver silk clothes and, turning up his tiny nose at Keldron’s proffered silver, demanded to be taught magic. Keldron had insisted that he didn’t teach any more—too old—but Lofar had been more stubborn than he.

So, here he was, ten years later, resting on a collapsed mushroom, wet, shivering, in the dark, waiting for who-knows-what, hidden in plain sight, liable to be beaten within in an inch of his life by this same—and surprisingly strong—old man when he returned. Lofar couldn’t repress a grin. Aye, this was the life for him.
See, I bet you know Lofar pretty darn well.

I've done the bring a character to life in a few short sentences before, but it was really designed with short stories in mind. So, what I'd like to do here is get folks to write a passage, briefly, that provides enough insight to get the feel of someone, either a character they wrote or a passage from a book that brought a favorite character to life.


  • flit

    oooh... haven't read a James Herriot in forever.... I love his work!

    going to have to look for some next time I get to a used book store

  • flit

    Will have to look for a passage to share ... will do that tomorrow

  • Richard Perkins

    How about this one? It's an excerpt from my NaNo novel The Renegade's Door. It's not Herriot class, but I'm pretty proud of it.

    "Master Merchant, I believe Sasha here has something you're looking for." Eliza and the goat came to a stop a few paces in front of the glowering Jak.
    "What is the meaning..."
    Eliza interrupted Jak by pulling a small pouch out of the goat's pack and spilling its contents into her palm. The amethysts glittered like cold purple stars in the last of the fading sunlight. She rolled them around on her palm for a moment before sliding them back into the pouch and tying the drawstrings tightly. "Now about our agreement..."
    "What... how did you... where..." Jak's eyes were large and luminous behind his crystal spectacles.
    "I believe the terms were the amethysts in exchange for passage to Stoneburner Gathering with your wagon train, right?" Eliza dangled the pouch between her fingers, swinging it back and forth in front of the amazed merchant's eyes.
    Jak crossed his arms across his chest. "How did you get those?"
    Eliza smiled sweetly and wagged her finger. "Not part of the deal, remember?"
    Jak snorted into his goatee. "Neither was that pack animal."
    Eliza shrugged and started to turn away. "Oh well. I suppose I can find someone else who will take these stones off my hands."
    "Wait!" Jak glared furiously.
    "So. Do you want the stones or not?"
    Jak held out his palm. "All right. You win. We leave at first light, and you'd better not slow us down."
    Eliza dropped the pouch into the merchant's hand. "Wouldn't dream of it."
    Mikel couldn't suppress a chuckle. Jak turned his glare in the teamster's direction.
    "So you think it's funny? She can ride with you then!" Jak shook his head and stomped away to see that the crew carrier was ready for their departure.
    Eliza offered Mikel a petite hand. "I'm Eliza, healer and medicine woman from Guardian Village."
    Mikel took her pale hand in his dark almond one and nodded politely. "I'm Mikel, one of Jak's teamsters."
    Eliza looked at Mikel's hand and raised an eyebrow marginally. "Is that so?"
    "If you have any gear you can stow it in the back."
    She nodded amiably before hopping up onto the wagon's raised bed. She cast an admiring eye over Mikel's handiwork as she searched for a suitable place for her gear. She tucked her staff, cloak, and one small satchel under the bench near the front of the cargo space. She reached for Mikel's hand as she stepped back out through the small door.
    "So. Why wouldn't the Starseekers sell those stones to the Master Merchant?"
    Eliza looked up into Mikel's dark brown eyes with a discerning look. "He had nothing they wanted."
    "And what did they want from you?"
    Eliza paused for a moment before answering. "We all have our secrets to keep, now don't we Mikel?"
    Mikel suffered a moment of doubt as he wondered what she meant. But then she smiled at him guilelessly and the moment passed. This assignment just got more interesting. Or maybe he was getting paranoid. "Welcome to the Nadori Wagon Train."

  • Stephanie B

    Hey, Richard, thanks for participating!

    Isn't making a character fun?

  • Bob Johnson

    That's why I like your writing sooo much, you make it easy to know someone with little words and effort, either like or hate the character instantly,then you can flip it and give the reader another view.

  • GumbyTheCat

    I read all the Herriot books when I was younger; I enjoyed them greatly.

  • Stephanie B


    I missed you, man!

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