Friday, December 10, 2021


Writer's Craft Article by Karen S. Wiesner


Based on CPR FOR DEAD OR LIFELESS FICTION {A Writer's Guide to Deep and Multifaceted Development and Progression of Characters, Plot, and Relationships} by Karen S. Wiesner

This will be the first of three posts focusing on how to spot dead or lifeless characters, plots, and relationships in your fiction.

"Confirming and declaring that someone is dead is a careful process. Check for a pulse, pupil response, and heart sounds. If a patient is in a coma, check for signs of brain death, including irreversible brain and brainstem damage, an inability to breathe on their own, and, again, a lack of pupil response. An EEG, a test that measures electrical activity in the brain, will flatline when all functions in the heart and brain stop." ~"Exactly How a Doctor Knows That Someone is Dead" by Sara Coughlin on the Refinery29 company website 

In real life, you can get to know some people easily. With others, it may take you years and an incredible amount of effort to truly get to know them and understand who they are. Characters are just the same. Some come to life with the first story spark and flesh themselves out continuously throughout all the stages of writing. Other characters refuse to come out of hiding so easily. In some ways, these characters are hiding from the writer, so it becomes that much harder for the writer to get to know them and bring them to life. These characters have barriers the author absolutely must break through in order to bring them to life.

A lot of authors ask, How do I know whether my characters are coming to life? The assumption is that, if a character is walking, talking, and moving through each scene in the book, she must be coming to life. Real, living characters and merely lifelike characters are two completely different things, especially in this age, when it’s so easy to manipulate images and facts. Authors can be holding those characters like lifeless puppets, thrusting them through the story when there's no life in them. Real, living characters are what you’re striving for because only these characters allow the readers to understand what lies behind the face presented within the story. Readers will see personality, deep issues and conflicts, goals and motivations, and amazingly natural growth and evolution. Lifelike characters are merely cardboard, and most readers will see right through the careful fa├žade you constructed because there’s clearly nothing behind it--no personality, no growth, no true internal conflicts, response to external conflict, or deeply personal goals and motivations as a result of the problems.

If you don’t have to ask whether your characters are coming to life, it’s probably because your story is reeling through your mind in full color. As a writer, you should wake up with your characters in the morning and go to bed with them at night. In any given situation, you should know exactly what they’d be thinking and saying and doing. You see them growing and developing as they work through their conflicts and relationships, and you have a solid idea about what motivates them in any situation. It goes without saying in this best of all scenarios that your characters, their conflicts and relationships are living and breathing through you. If your critique partners, publisher, agent, and readers feel the same way, consider yourself blessed.

It’s harder to define when--and especially why--some characters don’t come to life. However, in most instances, the characters, plots, or relationships are lifeless because the author hasn’t developed them three-dimensionally enough to allow them to live and breathe. You as the writer need to create solid CPR development throughout the story. But keep in mind that both author and character need to share control of development. An author should never be so controlling that the character is too stifled by rigidity to come to life nor can an author allow the character to run amok in a story in ways that simply don’t fit. The author should give his character enough freedom to be able to emerge and develop naturally and enough discipline to keep the story logical and cohesive.

Dead CPR development sounds as easy to spot as a dead body in real life. See the quote at the beginning of this article for the medical process of determining such a state. Dead doesn't move, doesn't so much as twitch, groan, or reach for help, especially the longer it's been lying around. There's nothing there. No breath, no pulse, no warmth, conscience or *conscious*ness, let alone activity or movement that might imply something once existed, walked, and talked at any time previously. If nothing else, the analysis of your own story's core elements in the search to locate signs of life should point to either a definitive extreme in the positive or the negative or something in-between. Unfortunately, it's not always so cut and dried in telling whether or not our characters are dead or lifeless.

In some instances where this fact was (unbelievably and yet it happens) ignored, the dead elements may reek so badly, there's no question about whether you're in the presence of something dead or lifeless. Few readers will get past the first paragraph. No one wants to get near it, not even those who claim to love and care about you but are begging off desperately concerning this story. On one hand, it's a good thing if it's this obvious. At least you know, right? Logic says that, if you realize it, you can do something about it.

In other cases, only one or two of the core elements are actually dead. The living elements are "carrying around" the other one or two. (If that's not a vivid image, I don't know what is.) In theory, we should be able to recognize dead development when it's paired with something living. In that situation, can you point out what you're enjoying and connecting with? Those are the living parts. Are other potentially specific things unfocused, surreal, and maybe even unbelievable, without a pulse, a sign of life, or the proper foundation to begin building on? Those are dead or lifeless.

Easy peasy? Sigh. Not so much. In Part 2, we'll talk more about how to spot dead or lifeless CPR development.

Find out more about CPR FOR DEAD OR LIFELESS FICTION here:

Have you ever read a book with dead or lifeless characters? Leave a comment to tell me about it! 

Happy writing!

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 140 titles and 16 series. Visit her here:

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