Saturday, April 3, 2021

Make the Characters You Create Come to Life

by Tim Suddeth @TimSuddeth

Bob Newhart. Dick Van Dyke. Lucille Ball.


Each of these were real persons. And many of us feel like they are our long-time friends because we’ve watched their shows on TV and in the ubiquitous reruns for decades, right?


But Bob Newhart didn’t really run a bed-and-breakfast, did he? And I am sure, when Mr. Van Dyke took his wife out to dinner, he really wasn’t taking out Mary Tyler Moore. Although I have to admit, that would be who I’d expect to meet.


And Lucy? (Makes you smile just thinking about her, doesn’t it?) Well, it does seem that Ethel was a real friend to her. Only her name wasn’t Ethel, it was Vivian. In fact, when Lucy did a new series in the 60s, Vivian Vance agreed to come back but only if they changed her name.


So, what made the characters so real that they continue to be meaningful for us today? And how can we use those tools to make our characters come to life?


1. Show their friends.


Each of these characters had one or more friends who really connected or followed them. We like to read stories about people we can see as being one of our friend. There are some exceptions. But most lead characters are written in ways that make them attractive to their audience.


By giving your characters friends, that shows your readers that they are friendly. Look at Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Whenever a certain character walks in, the whole bar called out, “Hey, Norm.”


Now, he can be a crotchety old geezer, but we always saw him as friendly because everybody welcomed him so heartily.


2. Show their nice sides.


Another way to do this is the popular save-the-cat method. Let the reader or watcher see your character doing something nice for someone or thing. Helping someone with their groceries or throwing the ball back over the fence to the kids. By showing them doing something kind, then we think of them as being kind and we are more accepting of their story.


Making your character likable doesn’t mean they are all nice and sweet. All of us have our good days, as well as our bad. It’s those good times that help a reader care about your character.


We may put up with a jerk, but do we really care about what happens to them. Or are we hoping to see them get that pie in their face?


3. Put the right words in their mouths.


Another reason the three I listed stand out so much is their dialog. For these three, they were laugh-out-loud funny, Sometimes, even without the laugh tracks. But it wasn’t just the humor, it was how natural it sounded.


Now, dialog is strange. Sounding natural doesn’t mean sounding like what is actually said. We don’t want all the uhs, hems, and throat clearings. Even too many ‘you knows’ will cause the reader to toss your pages across the room.  And in real life, we say a lot by motions or eye contact that just won’t come across on the page.


Yet, writing dialog correctly is one of the best ways to get your reader interested in your story and characters. So, take the time to study how to do this. Study good books in your genre and learn how other authors pulled it off.


4. Show more than one side of life.


It’s amazing how these shows have stood the test of time so well, ignoring the clothes, hair, and some of the ideas. Even in reruns, these shows get new readers today. And that goes to making the characters as real as possible.


We call that making them a three-dimensional character. They had more than one purpose for their character. They usually had a career, a family, and friends that all revealed different parts of them. Unless you are writing a short story, it is important to show how your character deals with and relates to others in different settings and relationships.

Now, why is creating a strong character important, even if you write nonfiction?


There are at least two reasons. First, the more attractive, not just physically, the person is to the reader, the more they will pull your reader into your story. And the more likely the reader will accept the situation they get into, no matter how far fetch it was.


Lucy is a great example. Only by showing how far she would go to show Desi she was right; would we believe she would stuff bon bons down her blouse. But knowing her as we did, it made perfect sense.


Second, the more they like and accept your character, the longer they are likely to remember your story. A Sunday morning service is a great example of this. On the way home, you get a call from your mom asking what the service was about.


Now, if you’re like me, you’ll reply, “God.”


But normal people usually recant the illustration the minister used.


And that is why illustrations are so important in works of nonfiction. The stories are able to get passed your listeners’ walls they put up and help them see the moral that may even go against what they wish to do. 


The Great Teacher, Jesus knew this. And it must have worked with his disciples because much of their gospels isn’t given to what He did, but to the stories He told. Just saying the Good Samaritan reminds us that putting others before ourselves is important.


And mentioning Lazarus? Even death shouldn’t make us anxious.


So, when you’re writing a story and you are planning the whats and wheres, remember to take special care of the whos. Because the stronger your characters come across, the better your story will be.


Make the Characters You Create Come to Life - @TimSuddeth on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Tim Suddeth is a stay-at-home dad and butler for his wonderful, adult son with autism. He has written numerous blogs posts, short stories, and three novels waiting for publication. He is a frequent attendee at writers’ conferences, including the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference and a member of Word Weavers and ACFW. He lives near Greenville, SC where he shares a house with a bossy Shorky and three too-curious Persians. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at 


  1. Always good, solid stuff, Tim. Thanks.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

  2. Great post! Going in my "bookmarks!" :)

  3. You had me at Bob, Dick, and Lucy.
    Such an excellent blog post, Tim. I smiled the entire time I read it.

    1. I know. I love remembering those shows and thinking of episodes they ‘should’ have done.

  4. Now there’s a post worth reading! Glad to say I have some of those points showing up. Have to work on the others.

  5. A good reminder to show your main character has more than one aspect to his or her life. I've always liked that Alfred Hitchcock would often give his main characters relatives to flesh them out. Because he made fast-paced thrillers, he could've gone with Standard Hero, Standard Heroine, and Standard Villain. By giving them relatives, those characters became more read and interesting.