Breathing Life into Fictional Characters

April 13, 2015 by K.M. Wray



K.M. Wray was shortlisted in our 2014 Free Publishing Contest for her allegorical young adult novel, Breaking Enchantments. Learn more about how she drew on real-life events to breathe life her fictional characters, and find out how you can too! Breaking Enchantments is available as an eBook via any of these vendors:
Amazon
Chapters/Indigo
Kobo


I had just returned from living in South Korea for 7 years and had a substantial amount of free time. Initially, I believed my teaching career had come to an end, so it seemed like a good opportunity to explore other interests.

I enrolled in a few local writing courses and found pursuing the craft enjoyable. At the classes, I’d get assignments and tackled them with gusto. Previously, I daily stored my thoughts in journal, but now I started to write about my struggles, frustrations, questions—-you name it—in story form, and my pastime gained a whole new value. The world became alive with metaphors, magic and characters. All of which are symbolic of a facet of life.

Perhaps you’re wondering how to enhance your writing with a bit more vitality. For an illustration, I’ll use my novel Breaking Enchantments.

One day, while I was driving through an older area in my city, two character homes stayed with me. When I arrived home, I hastily sketched them out, and the premise for my premiere novel, Breaking Enchantments, began to form: A young girl stumbles onto an abandoned piece of enchanted property where she receives magical powers, which she both craves and fears.

Unfortunately, it felt flat.

At the time, I was dealing with reverse culture shock, so I used my personal journey to build characters and create story threads that interwove with the original plot. Erin, the main character, developed greater depth and her family added wisdom, charm and necessary tension. The story was born!

In Breaking Enchantments, aside from Erin’s internal battle with her identity, she is also dealing with many levels of conflict, which greet her in the form of her family and her developing magic. However, to balance her relational and inner turmoil, I also added stability through her best friend Luc and the Lord, who is represented through Morning Star in the book.

The two characters who created the most tension for Erin were Mi-Young, her cousin and her Uncle Lee, Mi-Young’s dad.

Mi-Young is a very sweet character whose name means beautiful spirit. As I wrote her, I knew Erin would wrestle a lot with her. In the early samples of the manuscripts, many people said they didn’t understand Erin’s animosity towards her cousin because she was so kind. So I had to make Erin’s memories of Korea stronger and more traumatic and then increase her sense of anxiety and insecurity. Mi-Young’s gentle nature was needed, however, to help counter the bad Erin had previously experienced in Korea.

Conversely, I intentionally wrote Uncle Lee to antagonize Erin. After reading some of the initial drafts, most people said, “I don’t like the uncle,” which meant I had succeeded in developing his character. Uncle Lee represented the bad Erin had to face and accept in her cross-cultural adaptation. He represents the struggle most third culture kids deal with regarding identity. Furthermore, he wasn’t meant to grow a lot as a character since it’d be impossible for a whole culture to change. Instead, Erin was meant to change and adapt her thinking and behavior to an unfavorable circumstance.

As I wrote the novel, I gave Erin a substantial amount of internal conflict regarding her cousin and uncle. There are also some varying degrees of intense verbal exchanges. Some of these scenes were challenging for me to write but they were also cathartic because as the characters talked or argued and Erin dealt with her frustrations, I found I too was looking at the two sides of a personal area of readjustment to Canada.

Chances are you’ve also been through intense experiences in life. What have you worked through? Or are you presently dealing with a struggle and need help processing it? May I suggest writing them out in the form of a character, dialogue or a tangle the main character faces? Try this with your own writing. The scene will probably go in an unexpected direction.

Erin’s mom is a woman stuck in two worlds; the challenge and pressure of being Canadian and Korean. So often during my years in Korea, I felt this tension of trying to adapt to the culture in order to connect better but to also remain true to who I was as a Canadian.

Finally, I wrote Aunt Sue-Hay, whose name means pure wisdom, as the voice of reason Erin needs to navigate her journey with her family. I wrote Erin’s midnight chat with her aunt as a pivot point for both Erin and myself. It was a way of accepting that my perceptions of Korean behavior were not what I had interpreted. This is also a huge moment for Erin in finally letting go of her hurt.

Although I touched on Morning Star and Erin’s magic earlier, I want to swing back to it. At the beginning of the novel, Erin is scared of her relatives and hurting from her previous experiences with the culture. Furthermore, when she first receives her magical ability, it is bursting from her, but due to the bitterness in her heart, it lessens. As the story progresses, however, she works through issues of forgiveness and as she does, her power returns and she experiences Morning Star’s grace. How often do our own paths take this turn? We want to move forward, but there are ties from the past that hold us. Like Erin, we need the Lord, the good people He brings and His grace.

Have you considered the questions posed earlier about how to re-work your characters or manuscript? Jot down the ideas that floated through your mind as you’ve read this blog. Add from your own life, dialogue with your emotions or conflict. Think about some of your characters. Try working the two together into the story or scene you want to enhance. Then tell us about the results. We’d love to hear from you!

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About this Contributor

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K.M. Wray makes her home in Canada but lived in Pusan, South Korea for seven years. She enjoys working with language learners and immigrants of all ages as an English teacher and has around two decades of experience as an instructor. In her free time, she coordinates a community drop-in program through her church to assist immigrant families with their English and adjustment needs in Canada. She considers it a great privilege to serve the international community among us.
Visit her blog at kmwray.wordpress.com
Connect with her on WattPad under Rae-el