How To Make Your Characters Breathe

Writing characters that feel alive, that feel like they are flesh-and-bones humans, that feel like they breathe, is crucial to all storytelling. But how do you achieve that? Sometimes you follow all the rules and according to all your characterization checklists the character is perfect, but they just somehow feel flat or forced. Today I want to address exactly this.

Let’s get to know your characters better! We will deepen your characterization with a fun exercise of hanging out with the characters. You have probably already heard of this tip, and that is because it’s an extremely good one. I am just going to provide some (hopefully) helpful guidance to really bring your characters to life. I invite you to try this exercise with all of your story’s main characters, but especially, of course, the protagonist and the antagonist.

Find the balance

There are countless rules you can find out there about what makes a great protagonist/antagonist/sidekick/etc. If you are reading this, I am pretty sure you have come across at least a few in your life. All these rules or guidelines are awesome. Nevertheless, they are useless if you don’t balance them out with your intuition. As well as being mindful of all the checkpoints your characters have to tick, remember to give your characters time and space to grow. There is definitely a way to practice that and this is the aspect of characterization I want to focus on today.

Let’s hang out!

So the idea of the exercise is to hang out with your character. Take a walk with them. Invite them over for coffee. Whatever they want. Remember, this is about them. Then just… chat. Talk. About anything. if there’s an awkward silence, so be it.

Before you start this exercise, make sure to clear your schedule, so you can really take your time. Above all, it is crucial you do not rush this and “put words in the character’s mouth”. I know it sounds paradoxical, but the invitation here is just to try it, no matter how silly it sounds. Let the character speak for themselves. You are here to observe and listen.

In this time you have carved out for you and your character, let them guide the conversation if they wish to. Notice how they behave. Are they comfortable? Are they fidgeting? Do they talk a lot? What do they talk about? Things like this. Try to let them be. You might even see something you didn’t know about them before! But in any case, this time spent together will give you a better idea of what kind of energy this character brings to the room. Notice how you feel around them. This is how the other characters in your story feel!

Life in general

After letting your character settle in and get comfortable, you can start asking them some questions and gently begin to guide the conversation. Start with small, talk, and continue with their life and hobbies. Just like at the beginning, do not rush this. Try to inquire about anything, be it general or specific, and get a feeling of the character’s attitude to their own life (and possible changes of it).

Try to notice how you ask them. We ask the same question differently when it comes to different people. How do you get the answers you’re looking for from this character? And how do they respond to your questions? Are they being open or reluctant? Try to notice their body language, their vocabulary, and, of course, what they do and don’t (!) say. Observe and listen.

Hopes and dreams

Okay, this is one of the more important ones. So you’re hanging out with your character. You’re talking (or not talking) about stuff, maybe their life, maybe small talk, whatever. Now you can move to deeper themes and try to see what is important to them and how they express it. Ask about their past or present desires. Notice how they talk about them and how they behave when they talk about them. Feel them out a bit, and see how they respond.

Then comes the important part. Try provoking them a little. Then a lot. Begin small, try to see where their buttons are – only in conversation, nothing fancy. Then push a bit more. And a bit more. See how they react. How long does it take them to be provoked? What are the things that trigger them the most? Take it as far as you want. See what really steps on a nerve and find what they are passionate about. Notice. Observe and listen.

It might not be fun to purposely provoke your characters, but it’s essentially what your story is going to do. And yes, while you might feel a bit bad, you might also enjoy it tremendously. Because after all, it is a super interesting thing to try. Well, that’s the double-sided nature of the world of writing and I, for one, love it.

Other characters

There are, of course, many other things you can discuss with your character while you are hanging out. It mostly depends on what you are interested in and what might be important for your story. So you can focus on their relationship with their family (parents, children, siblings, or any other relatives) or maybe their romantic relationships. Perhaps you are interested in their morals and philosophy, politics, religion, or just their views on the world in general. Anything goes.

But the last thing I wish to point out is your character’s relationship with other characters in the story. If you have any other important elements (for example, if the setting plays a crucial role in your story plot), then also check the character’s relationship with those. Mention the other characters (or elements). See how your character reacts to that. Look at their body language. Listen to what they say – and notice what they don’t. And, once again, don’t force any opinions on them, but rather let the character react organically. You just observe and listen.

Pay attention

Basically, I am inviting you to spend some time with your character. Get to know them, see how they function. It’s a cool exercise to do and you’ve probably heard about it a million times. Which makes sense, because it’s a great and useful one. But what I wish to emphasize here is to not rush it. Really take time and pay attention to what happens. This hang-out session is not about you getting some data. It is about getting the feel of your character and how they are when you just let them be. You know, observe and listen.