Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Creating Characters That Live Outside the Story

I'm not a character-chart kind of writer. I start with a general sketch -- place in the family, names of friends, an interesting hobby or two -- and a few of the character’s  strongest personality traits and skills. Add to that something the character wants and then I get writing. I mostly find out more about my characters through their reactions to situations and the other characters as I write.

But lately I’ve been thinking more about building characters that seem to “live outside the story”. To me, this means creating an impression or feeling that characters will live on after you finish reading. You might also have the feeling that these people existed before you jumped into the story. A third part of this is a hint that the characters have other things in their lives besides whatever is going on in the novel plot. Characters that have these rich “beyond the story” lives seem more layered and realistic.
The trick is to find the space in your story to do it, especially if you write middle grade fiction like I do. Some of the strategies I use include:

Memories. When a character goes to a familiar place or sees a familiar person, it might evoke an emotional memory that can give the reader a brief glimpse at events before the story took place. For example, in Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, there’s a brief description of an a humorous event that happened two weeks before the story started, when Gianna’s brother Ian was banned from using his cell phone.

Mention in Passing. Even when the character spends most of their time in experiences and events that are related to the plot of the story, their life seems fuller when other places or events are quickly mentioned without a lot of detail. For example, your plot might not take place at school, but by mentioning school or homework, you create the sense of another part of your character’s life.

Leave a question in the reader’s mind. Most middle grade novels end with all the subplots resolved, especially for stand alone novels. But that doesn’t mean you can’t leave the reader with something to think about. A tiny question or the brief mention of a future event could give the reader a sense of continuity for the characters.
Do you have any good strategies for creating characters that seem to have a life outside your story? We'd love to hear them!


  1. Great suggestions for making characters more fleshed out! Thanks Andrea!

  2. This is something I have trouble with in my writing. Brilliant topic for a post. I'm currently reading the Infernal Devices series, and almost ALL of the characters Cassandra Clare creates in this story are compelling and complicated and it's easy to image their lives outside the story. Such great writing.

    1. Oh, I'll have to look for those, Terry. Thanks!

  3. I've found the first one, memories, especially important. This is an interesting topic because while you can't drown a book in backstory, especially the beginning, you have to have some sense of backstory so that the characters seem to have existed prior.

  4. In my middle grade novel, Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers, I modeled my characters after my 3 sons and morphed them with popular Disney Channel characters like Gabe and PJ from Good Luck Charlie, Alex, her dad, and her brothers from Wizards of Waverly Place, and Flynn from Shake It Up. Then I took things my kids friends did and said and threw that into the mix as well. Finally, my 10 year old son helped write sections of the novel. The result - a very strong boy's voice for the main character and humorous voice and actions for the other characters. Hope this helps. I also sometimes use a character questionnaire provided by Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon. I never include all that information in the story, but it does help flesh out the character in my mind.


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