Breathing Life into Your Characters
A Round Robin Blog, 4-22-23
Lila poked at the sword. Nearly the length of her legs, it was impressive, but why would Jen think this was a good birthday gift? She raised an eyebrow at her best friend.
Jen grinned, her brown eyes sparkling with excitement. “Imagine what you could do with it.” She picked it up and stumbled backward. Grimacing, she lifted it higher and braced her legs wide apart. “It’d be a great work out.”
“If I want to accidentally kill myself, sure, but I’m thinking I’d like to live to see my 30th birthday.”
Jen swung it, caught herself against a tree, and laughed. “Okay, I think I need to lift some weights before I do this.” She gently leaned it against tree.
Sunlight danced along the blade and its engravings. For a moment, Lila thought the engravings writhed. Curious, she inched closer. They weren’t just engravings, but actual words. She adjusted her glasses and pushed back a lock of long, black hair.
“To the victor goes the spoils,” she read aloud and frowned. “What do you suppose that—”
The air shimmered, and a tall, muscled warrior solidified in front of them. A leather jerkin stretched taut across broad shoulders, and long, blond hair framed an impossibly handsome face. A gaze the color of an alpine lake pierced through her.
He knelt and bowed his head, his hair obscuring his face. “Milady, you have need of me?”
Lila’s knees threatened to collapse. Need. Yes, yes, she did.
The above is a piece of flash fiction I wrote in 2021. It was for a flash fiction contest that took place every Thursday. Sadly, the contest is now defunct. (I enjoyed the challenge.) Flash fiction really makes you work to breathe life into believable characters and interesting situations with a minimum of words. Trust me, there were some amazing authors who submitted every week. If you wanted that coveted badge, you had to work for it. Alas, this one did not win, but it did receive an honorable mention with the comment from the judge: Where can I find one of those magical swords?(Hahaha! If I knew . . . ) It is, however, an example of how it’s not the number of words that matter, but how you use them when breathing life into vivid characters.
Unless your aim is to create one-dimensional characters like those in The Last of the Mohicans, emotions, employing all of the senses for descriptions, and the character’s visceral reactions to the world around them, no matter how small, are the key. Flaws as well as positive traits are needed, even if the character doesn’t view them as positive. And show vs. tell. (How many times have you read that? LOL) Don’t tell us they’re afraid. Show us. What are the telltale signs of that character when confronted with fear? Do they freeze? Do they run? Do they widen their eyes, gasp, and scream? Does the dread pool in their stomach, and the blood drain from their head before they pass out? Everyone reacts differently. Let your character tell you how they react. What are their personality quirks? Let us know how they view the world with their opinions and reactions.
Clinical descriptions result in flat characters. One of my biggest pet peeves is when an author writes: she/he was wearing (insert description of clothes here). Humans judge others all of the time. Whether it’s favorably or unfavorably, we always have an opinion. (We may try not to, but we are full of them.) So, if your character sees another person and registers what they are wearing, most likely they will make a judgement. They will even make judgements about themselves. So don’t leave those out.
Josie’s friend Eva rushed through the door with seconds to spare, as usual. Her brown, curly hair swirled around her head in perfect disarray, pink tinged her high cheekbones, and the neon green mini dress molded her trim figure. hitting her long, toned legs mid thigh. Every male in the classroom turned to watch Eva race to her desk. Much restless shifting in seats ensued.
Something that would never happen for Josie. Heat burned her cheeks as a stab of envy sliced through her. She lowered her gaze, unwilling to share her unwanted emotions with her best friend. Eva couldn’t help that she was beautiful, smart, sweet, and everything Josie wasn’t.
We learn a great deal about Josie just by how she observes her friend. They are friends, but she’s jealous of her, even if she doesn’t want to be. As for Eva, she’s constantly just scraping to make it on time, and, perhaps, if we were in her point of view, we might see that she envies her friend for being so organized and never having to rush anywhere. Rushing might drive Eva nuts, but she may not be able to help it. She might even wish she didn’t have brown, curly hair. Maybe she envies Josie’s ability to wear a pixie cut and still look adorable because her own curly hair, if short, would just look like a perm gone bad.
Another flash fiction example:
“Did you pick up my order?”
Jenny cringed, ignoring her mom’s question, and walked into her bedroom.
Her mother staggered after her, catching herself against the doorjamb.“Jenny, I’m talking to you.”
Jenny glanced at her mother. Stringy brown hair hung in greasy chunks around her mother’s gaunt face. Tears stung Jenny’s eyes. She looked away.
“Did you get it?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Mom.”
Her mom limped closer, a red glow backlighting her brown eyes. “Don’t lie to me, Jenny. You know I can tell when you’re lying.” A long, split tongue flicked between her lips. “Yes, it tastes like a lie. You know what that means, don’t you?”
Backing away, she held her arms up and shook her head. “No. Please don’t.” The back of her legs bumped into her bed, and she crumpled. “I—look, Mom, I’ll do whatever you say, but, please, don’t do that.”
“Cut!” Maxwell’s shout broke Jenny/Ambrosia’s concentration. “Excellent work, you two. I can’t wait to share it with the audience.” He turned away. “All right, everyone, let’s take a 15-minute break. Be back at,” he looked at his watch, “2 p.m.”
Ambrosia shuddered, coming back to reality. She’d really thought she’d seen that red glow. It must’ve been her imagination. She smiled at her cast mate. “That was some amazing acting, Celia. I really believed you.”
Celia smirked. “I do my best, dear, but,” a red glow danced in her eyes, “who said I was acting?”
So, make sure they’re opinionated, flawed with positive traits, and you show their reactions. That’s how I breathe life into my characters.