How Do You Bring Characters To Life?

26 Feb

by June Hur


I received an email from one of my readers who recently decided to dabble a bit in writing herself. She wrote to me of how lifeless her characters seemed, and thus, how discouraged she felt when hearing other writer friends talk about their characters being so alive to them, like real friends. What, she then asked, does it mean by characters being alive to you? How does it feel like? How can a character created by a bunch of words seem like a human to you? How can they take you on an adventure when they’re YOUR creation? I completely understood her. I was once in her situation myself. But after writing day in, day out, I came to a point where the two protagonists in my book became so real to me that I at times want to call them up for a cup of tea, just to chat. I’ve learned that to grow a relationship with your protagonist(s), a writer must make two investments:

TIME INVESTMENT – My current project, THE RUNAWAY COURTESAN, took me 3 years to write and revise. Before applying for university, I spent two years abroad, and ended up writing for 4+ hours a day. In total, I calculated that I had spent over 5,000 hours on this story—excluding the hours I spent thinking about the characters and plotline. Mandy Hubbard had to likewise spend hours after hours on PRADA & PREJUDICE before she could get it published. It took Sarah J. Maas 6.5 years to write all three books of QUEEN OF GLASS, where she’d spend three to four hours on the weekdays working on it. It took Savanah Foley 6 years to complete and revise WOMEN’S WORLD (Antebellum) and she would spend up to 4 hours working on it every day. It took Lynn Heitkamp 7 years to write and revise THORN OF THE KINGDOM. The other lovely contributors are still working on completing or polishing their manuscript, and also devote much of their time to writing as well. So when you end up spending thousands of hours in the mind and heart of a character, of course they come alive!  

EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT – In order to write as realistically as possible, novelists must dig deep into the chambers of their heart to renew the feeling of joy, anger, jealousy, grief, fear, despair, or whatever emotion they need to write about. Think about this example: How could you write about Jane having the most heart-wrenching breakup with John if you’ve never even gone through a breakup? Nothing can come from nothing, after all. A writer needs either to have gone through such an experience, and be willing to renew the haunting emotions correlated with it—or the writer needs to have a big imagination in order to put themselves through such an ordeal. That’s why many writers listen to music while writing. They need music to stimulate their imagination to plunge them into an emotion never experienced before, or to emphasize an emotion they had only felt a dose of in the past. So we, the novelists, end up feeling what the characters feel. We cry and laugh with them. And this intimacy breathes life into the characters.

Characters don’t come to life over night. Like any other relationships with human beings, a relationship with one’s character takes patience. When I first began writing TRC my heroine and hero were like stick-people to me. They were strangers. But gradually, my protagonists began to speak and act in ways I had never planned. The subconscious part of me was telling the story now. The conscious “June” was no longer in control. And it was only then that my characters took me on an adventure. It was only then that they became flesh and blood to me. Truly, when your characters take their first breath, it is the most wonderful, amazing feeling ever.

I’d like to end this article with two questions: How long do you write for every day? How alive are your characters to you? 


June Hur is the author of The Runaway Courtesan. She is currently awaiting the response of an agent who requested her full manuscript. When she is not working on her next book, she can usually be found at a book shop, searching for a Great Love Story to read and analyze. You can follow her on Twitter or through her blog.


29 Responses to “How Do You Bring Characters To Life?”

  1. Angela February 26, 2010 at 3:21 AM #

    Wow, this article helped out a lot. I usually spend at least an hour writing everyday, but distractions such as youtube and msn make writing much harder. The characters in my stories feel like stick people, which I always worry about. Now I know what I need to do to connect with my story emotionally.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Vanessa February 28, 2010 at 1:27 AM #

      Everything distracts me. Everything. It’s terrible! Especially since I have so many hobbies!

  2. junebugger February 26, 2010 at 3:50 AM #

    I’m super glad that this article was of some help to you : )

    Yes, connection emotionally is very crucial. I had to postpone sending my manuscript off to an agent because me editor noticed how the last few chapters of my story was so flat. I realized I had written it in a state where I was emotionally detached from my characters. And this shows through to the readers, I guess.

    But it is exhausting to connect all the time. Especially if your story is angsty. Yet it pays off in the end. It always does.

  3. Rowenna February 26, 2010 at 9:13 AM #

    Great points! I feel like some of my characters spring fully formed onto the page, like Athena from Zeus’ head. Others need more coaxing–often it’s secondary characters who come blazing out fully formed, which makes me wonder if they are more compelling and deserve to take center stage. But I think it’s more that they are allowed to be a little less deep, so they fell finished before my main characters do.

    We chat, my main characters and I. Mostly in the shower or the car where no one else can hear us. So that’s how we get to know each other. And I’ll write them out, and they’ll do things that surprise me, and some of them work and some don’t so some stay and some get pruned.

    Lovely post!

    • junebugger February 26, 2010 at 2:57 PM #

      One of the things I like to do is chat while recording. So I would act as the characters I need to write about. This usually helps when I’m stuck on how to write a conversation.

  4. A. Barone February 26, 2010 at 11:00 AM #

    How do I bring characters to life? Well I just start writing about them and sooner or later they just start taking on a life of their own. I don’t know when or why it happens, I just know that sooner or later if I get far enough into the story then the characters will start becoming real. I also know that they’re real when they start having conversastions with each other in my head as I’m falling asleep or just waking up.

    • junebugger February 26, 2010 at 2:58 PM #

      Hahaha novelists are all nutcases. We have characters talking in our head. And it’s not even a case of schizophrania 😀 I would love it if my story felt so real that I could dream about it. But I have yet to conciously recall having dreamt about my story

  5. priscillashay February 26, 2010 at 12:54 PM #

    hmmm, at least I know I’m not the only crazy person who has characters in her head yelling, “I would never say that! How dare you!” or “What is God’s name is wrong with you? How could you write something”

    (my guys are mean to me lol)

    But, although my characters were “alive” I didn’t get to know them and have concrete personalities for them..until I finished and started the rewrite. At that point I knew them and what they wanted.

    • junebugger February 26, 2010 at 3:01 PM #

      I know your guys are mean to you. Reading your interview wiith Will…..hahaha it’s just so hilarious. I love it. I wonder if interviews help? Or maybe they only work after you get to know them.

      I didn’t get to know my characters until I was on the last few chapters of my work. And when I was reivising, because I knew them better, I had to do a lot of rewriting as there were scenes in which my characters acted out of character

      • priscillashay February 26, 2010 at 3:05 PM #


        Well, the interview helped me (although I learned more about Sophia by doing an interview with Will). It’s just a fun way to take your characters out of their environment and see how they act. I definitely had fun (I’d love to see an interview with Lucas!!!)

        Yeah, I found out about my characters: Bromfield is the silent, broody one, Collingsworth is the carefree, fun-loving one, and Will falls happily (or not so happily, depending on his mood) in the middle 🙂

      • junebugger February 27, 2010 at 7:44 PM #

        After reading your interview again a few days ago, I actually did try to write an interview with Lucas…but it was harder than I thought. I gave up in the end 😦

      • priscillashay February 27, 2010 at 11:54 PM #

        aww 😦 hmm maybe it would help if there were specific questions you wanted answers to? I can bounce ideas with you if you want, maybe get the creative juices flowing 🙂

      • junebugger February 28, 2010 at 12:12 PM #

        Since you’ve read my work, how about you interview Lucas? Throw some questions at me and I’ll try to answer them.


        I think I still won’t be too good at it! I tell you, my attempt at that interview failed miserably! Lucas is just too much of a cynic to be a good candidate for an interview it seems haha

      • priscillashay March 1, 2010 at 11:37 AM #

        Well, Will was pretty tight lipped too. You just have to be really creative about getting them to open up…or in m case, really bored and trying to avoid math 🙂

        Let’s see.

        Lucas, what is you relationship with your cousin? Would you change anything about it? If yes, what? If no, why not?

        (we’ll start there…because…the dynamics of that relationship really interested me.)

      • junebugger March 1, 2010 at 2:48 PM #

        I’ll get back to you on this topic via Facebook : D

  6. svonnah February 26, 2010 at 3:50 PM #

    Great article, June! I love how you talked about what it takes to get close to your characters; I’m writing an article right now that sort of ties into this: why words mean so much and why they affect us on such an emotional scale. I think once you spend hours and hours thinking about someone and developing rules for their characteristics then you naturally grow to care about them, and intuitively predict what they’d say or how they’d react to somethign.

    • junebugger February 27, 2010 at 7:45 PM #

      Right on, Savannah! We do learn to care for them, because they’re the product of so much effort, and in the end, like you wrote, we DO “intuitively predict” how they’ll behave. It’s all in the subconscious 😉

  7. Laura V February 26, 2010 at 10:11 PM #

    Exceptional post June! Now if only I was as disciplined as you and the other LTWFers… :$

    • junebugger February 27, 2010 at 7:47 PM #

      Thank you!

      Oh…well….the other LTWFers seem to be very self-disciplined. But I am not so much. I will write like mad when inspired, when inspiration roars through me. Otherwise I’m grumpy and not very proactive haha. I’m trying to fix that issue though.

  8. Praya February 27, 2010 at 1:34 AM #

    Ah SO appreciate your post June! I’m just finishing up a story about characters I thought up six years ago. Sure I’ve written short stories, things for school, about different people- but they were just short flings- nothing as serious as the depth of thought I put into that original piece. 😉 They would talk in my head before I went to sleep, I would have thoughts randomly that I knew only these characters would say, I knew them so well that they quite literally wrote themselves.

    Starting up a new novel now- that I really want to make brilliant- I found myself faced with this exact problem of stick-figure characters I couldn’t connect to. It was very disheartening. The best way to overcome it, I reckon, is to just give it time. (And that is insane- the amount of time you LTWFers put in. I feel um. Humbled?) Spend time with your main character, work on your first chapter until you’re comfortable with the voice. Just write scenes, related to the story or not, even if they’re crap and get to know your characters. I found a site with advice on character building and I found it helpful to do as they said and spend pages and pages writing about your character from everything biological/physical, to their hopes, dreams, passions, their worst/best memories, their fears, their friends, family. Then it becomes easier when you are writing to think- ‘hey that’s not something they would say’ and maybe, eventually you can get to the insane-these-people-are-voices-in-my-head stage.

    • Vanessa February 27, 2010 at 3:38 PM #

      The novel I’m working on had been brewing in my mind for 5 years now!

      And I always end up writing scenes that end up on the chopping block. Sometimes they are great for you as the writer to figure out your character and understand them better, but just won’t really work in the story. It’s hard, to cut out scenes that you’ve spent time writing, but sometimes it’s for the best!

      Btw June… great post!!!

      • junebugger February 27, 2010 at 7:50 PM #

        @ Vanessa – FIVE years?! Holy canoly.

      • Vanessa February 28, 2010 at 1:25 AM #

        Lol yep! Just after I graduated high school, this story came to mind. It’s changed a lot over the years (and I do mean A LOT), but for 3 years its been roughly what I’ve started writing.

        Hopefully, it doesn’t take me another 5 to actually WRITE it! lol

      • junebugger February 28, 2010 at 12:13 PM #

        Since you’ve been working on the idea for so long it should come more easily for you to write! I’m sure, as soon as yu have plenty of time to waste, you’ll zoom through the story in a matter of months

    • junebugger February 27, 2010 at 7:50 PM #

      You’re welcome! Glad to be of service 🙂

      That’s actually a very good advice! thank you for sharing. I’ll keep it in mind as I work on my next book.

      Hmmm I find that when I write trying to make my work a literary masterpiece, I end up trying to hard, using my brain too much, rather than letting the words flow out from my heart. And thus characters end up being stick people.

  9. Kayleigh February 28, 2010 at 12:13 PM #

    How long do you write for every day?

    I’m very irregular with my writing. There are times when I do nothing but write and then times like now when I don’t even open the document containing my novel. (Novel, I feel really bad about that by the way.) (But I’m blaming school and homework for that.) And if I do open that document, then I stare it for 5 minutes, go on the internet, stare some more and give up.

    It’s getting really bad… I need edit one novel, finish writing this one and a script and I haven’t been doing anything…

    How alive are your characters to you?

    Very. At first, not so much, but as chapters and words flew by me, I ended talking to them as I tried to fall asleep and apologizing when I made bad things happen to them.

    However, my characters weren’t alive at all back when I’d just started writing. I don’t remember talking to them or discovering why they did this or that or what their secrets were.

    • junebugger March 1, 2010 at 2:50 PM #

      Damn internet. It takes away so much of my writing time too…which is why I disabled the internet connection in my laptop. I don’t know how to enable it anymore. Think I screwed my computer up. But oh well. I write more these days because I’m not spending half my time networking.

      I think it’s the same with many other writers. The characters aren’t alive at first UNTIL you devote a lot of thought and time into their life.

      • Kayleigh March 1, 2010 at 3:22 PM #

        The problem for me is that re-enabling the internet is very easy, so it’s pointless. I’d have to switch the livebox off and tell my family to forbid me from going near it.


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