Who hasn’t heard of Pinocchio? Originally released in 1940—the second of Disney’s animated films, following Snow White in 1938—Pinocchio was re-released in theaters seven more times between 1945 and 1992, on home video in 1985, and on DVD in 1999. I can remember watching it in a movie theater when I was a kid, and at home with my own kids years later. Maybe you remember it too.
Pinocchio is, of course, the story of a wooden puppet who wants to become a “real boy.” To become real, Pinocchio has to do more than just speak and move. He has to learn to be honest and brave, to make choices that represent who he truly is.
It struck me that the story of Pinocchio has something to offer us, as writers, since we want the characters in our own stories to be real too. That raises the obvious question: What makes a character “real?”
As readers, we know the difference between a character who feels like a real person and a character who doesn’t. We might not be able to say exactly what it is that makes us believe, connect, and care—but if it doesn’t happen, there’s a good chance we’ll set the book aside.
As writers, it can be a bit more elusive.
Where does a character come from?
In my own experience, characters are “born” in different ways. Some appear fully-formed—how they look and talk, even their names. Others appear slowly, like a person walking toward me from far away. And still others have to be wrestled into existence; they almost seem to resist my need for them, requiring endless re-envisioning.
It doesn’t seem to depend on the character’s age, gender, background, personality, or how similar (or different) we are. In my second book, for example, there are two minor characters, Beryl Dumont and Jimmy Ray Calhoun, who made themselves known to me at once, right down to their names. I didn’t have to search, struggle, or even think about how to bring them to life; they were vivid and authentic from the very beginning.
I began to wonder: do we invent our characters, or do we get to know them? Do we build them, bit by bit, out of our storehouse of details and knowledge, as a landscaper might? Or do we coax them into existence, like a midwife, and marvel at the new person we’re eager to know? Or is it something in-between that makes a character “real” instead of wooden?
Below are four questions, along with some practical strategies, that can help to create characters who are fully alive. [Read more…]