Creating Compelling Characters in a Life Story

One of the most challenging aspects of life story writing is bringing characters to life. Taking a real-life person, getting inside them and truly knowing them. One of a life writer’s responsibilities it to reveal the gap between the mask a person wears and their secret self. But how can a life writer cut through to the essence of a person rather than just writing a flat account of the facts of their life?

An essential skill of a life writer is observation. Like a painter, the life writer must notice everything about their subject. But unlike an artist, a life writer paints a picture of a person with black and white words rather than a palette of colours. How can a life writer capture the essence of personality?

Writing a life story involves much more than attentive, detailed questioning, although this is an essential skill. Over the years I have learned a few ways of penetrating through to the complexity and intrigue of my subjects. Here are just of few of the questions I ask myself when writing about a person:

  • How does the person express their gender?
  • How does the person feel about their age?
  • How intelligent are they? What is their level of emotional intelligence and degree of common sense?
  • What is the greatest frustration in the person’s life? How has this influenced their worldview?
  • What are their inhibitions, compulsions, obsessions, prejudices, contradictions?
  • Physical characteristics and defects?
  • Characteristic facial expressions?
  • Characteristic body language?
  • Posture?
  • Hand gestures?
  • Style of clothing?
  • Characteristic style of sitting, standing and walking?
  • Disposition and temperament? Angry? Cynical? Passive?
  • Characteristic sayings?
  • The sound of their voice?
  • How they end their sentences?

Observing physical characteristics and mindfully listening to the responses of your subject will help you to identify the hidden meaning behind what they say. It will help you to paint a portrait of a complex character who captures the imagination of your readers.

To access more tips to help you on your writing journey join Life Stories Australia, the professional association for life story writers and videographers. Like us on Facebook:

Gabriella Kelly-Davies
Founder, Share your life story
Vice President, Life Stories Australia

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