Dead Character CPR

Revive your flat-lined character with CPR

Are your friends, peers, agents, and editors telling you that your characters reek of boredom? Did your character puncture himself on a piece of your jagged plot, and is now lying flat on the ground, deflated of all interest and life? Fret not! Below is your manual for character CPR:

Communicate with a letter

While your protagonist is lying there, level with the ground, ask him to write a letter. “To whom?” he may ask. “Suck it up and just write it to whomever,” you may reply.  And it’s true, it doesn’t matter.  Have him write it to his grandmother, his lover, to a local news agency, or the editor. You can even have him write a letter to you, the author of his flatness.

“What should I write about?” your character may ask. “I don’t care; write about your spleen I’m about to kick,” you may reply.  Have your character write about the horrific plot obstacle he had to endure, or about the first kitten he owned (which he still feels bad about squirting with a squirt gun)—the point is, get in their head.

If you want to add this letter in the ‘Special Features’ section of your 10th Anniversary Edition novel, so be it. For now, keep this letter between you and your dying character; see how it affects your story and their actions.

Pick a secret

Everyone holds a secret, unless they are perfect.  And, perfect people are boring—like your character.  Make him un-boring; give him a secret.  Make it juicy: extra rare with lots of blood.

Here’s the key: it doesn’t have to show up in your writing.  Write about it, yes, but not necessarily in your novel (or whatever great work you are writing).   Take some time fleshing out the details and make the decision how it shows up in your soon-to-be-published-and-become-a-bestseller writing. He murdered his best friend’s grandmother as an angst-fueled teenager; so what? Maybe he’ll have an obsession about washing his hands—“Out, damned spot! out, I say”—but it’s up to you how it impacts him in your story.

Revive the dialogue

“Hey, Joe.”
“Yeah, what’s up, Bob.”
“Uh, so, um, how’s the weather?”

And so goes your character, meh.

You’ve given him breath with a letter, you’ve pounded him on his chest with a secret, and now, for good measure, give him a shot of Elmore Leonard medicine: good, natural, and lively dialogue.  Readers are investing in more than narrative; they want to fall in love with your character. They aren’t going to fall in love with his flowing locks of golden hair and endless ocean-blue eyes. They’re going to be wooed by the words coming out of his mouth—so give him some good ones.

And if all else fails, kill him off.


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