Breathing Life into your Characters
By Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.
(Writer’s Digest Books, 256 pp)
Scope: Character development
Overview: Plot and character are among the most basic and essential aspects of fiction writing. They’re the bones of any great story. I’ve read several great books dedicated to the art of plotting (one of which, First Draft in Thirty Days, I reviewed here.) But when I searched for books devoted to character, I found only a few. Perhaps the subject of characterization is more nebulous, less prescriptive. Somehow unteachable.
To find out, I read Breathing Life into Your Characters. The author, Rachel Ballon, is a writer and psychotherapist. Who better to write a book on character? She draws heavily on her scholarly background to present the many facets of personality and human behavior. Many of the techniques she uses in therapy are described in this book to help you connect with her own emotional make-up. Once you understand yourself, the author argues, the better you’ll understand and empathized with your characters.
She outlines a host of considerations—backstory, motivation, internal struggle, conflict, family dynamics, body language, disorders, and archetypes—and fleshes out each with examples and exercises. But the end result is lackluster. Often lacking is how to translate these details to the page. What good is the greatest character sketch if the writer doesn’t know how to manifest all that knowledge, all those details within her story? That is what is missing from Dr. Ballon’s book.
Nevertheless, she does offer many good tips about developing character off the page. Here are some of the best:
- “The emotional life of your character will determine how he’ll act and react in stressful situations.”
Use high-pressure scenes to reveal your characters true, and sometimes ugly, nature.
- “You’ll want to develop an internal need or drive for all of your characters.”
This may be different from a character’s external motivation and may even be at odds with it. Sometimes a character won’t even be conscious of their internal need. For example, a man might join a carpool group to save money (external need) and because he craves interaction (internal need.)
- “If you want to meet your worst enemy and your best friend—just look in the mirror at yourself. The same goes for your characters.”
Give your characters contradictions. Don’t assume they’ll always act in their best interest. Allow them both weaknesses and strengths.
- “All of us wear masks”
Depending on the situation we don different masks and for different reasons. Consider what mask your character is wearing in a particular scene and why. What causes your character’s mask to slip? Who lies beneath?
- “It’s important for you to understand how the physical attributes you give your characters are just as critical as their inner drives.”
How do your characters walk and dress? What gestures do they make? What ticks do they have? How a character presents himself speaks to his inner make-up and frame of mind.
Do you believe there are aspects of characterization that are unteachable? Have you read any great books about this aspect of writing?