Writing realistic characters

Has anyone ever complained that your characters are flat, or “one-dimensional”?   Or maybe that they’re just “not interesting”?  It happens to a lot of writers, regardless of their experience.

Characters are people made out of words. Make them ‘real’.

Now, the first thing you have to realize is that “one-dimensional” is an extremely mis-used word.  It does NOT mean boring, or without hidden aspects.  It means they don’t “grow” or change through the course of the story.  This is important!  A one-dimensional character can be a really great one.

One of my favorite story-book characters ever, Samwise Gamgee, (I shouldn’t need to tell you where HE is from) is essentially a one-dimensional character.  Certainly, he learned a few things and had to endure some awful hardships (seeing Frodo dive into madness), but he didn’t really change.  The Sam that came out of Mordor was the same one that went in.  It all depends on what you’re writing.  From Sam’s point of view, the Lord of the Rings was a job that got done.  From Frodo’s point of view, it was the end of his world and, more importantly, the way he looked at that world.

If people complain of “one-dimensional characters” in your writing, take a good, hard look at your story before making a change.  Those critics might not have any idea what “one-dimensional” really means. And your novel might CALL for a one-dimensional character; readers like to see change, but having a solid, immovable character can help to anchor them and keep the story from feeling too chaotic.

But, you say, I’ve done all that and I DO need a well “rounded”, changing character!  Okay, then!  Let’s get to work.

First, determine how the character will change.  This is going to be a little tough;  you have to know your character well.  Some people, when placed under pressure, will grow.  Others, under identical circumstances, will crack.  Your characters are people, but they’re people YOU created.  That means you’re going to have to know them really well.  If you don’t, you run the risk of having a character break under the strain and having readers think “Hey, this character was stronger than that!  He should have come through this ordeal with flying colors!”  Or, (worse) having readers think “Whoa.  There is no way this guy survived this!  He’s the kind who should have curled up in a ball and died in the first five minutes!”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  You can have characters who surprise the reader, sure.  But make sure those characters haven’t been portrayed as set-in-stone unchangeable.  Leave a little wiggle room; not enough to draw the reader’s attention, but enough to let them think “Yeah… yeah… I can see this guy doing this!”  A good analogy for this is Silena Beauregard from Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series.  She’s the classic little twit and Riordan spends just enough time on her throughout the series to firmly entrench her as such.  And then, in the last book, she ends up saving the day.   Sure, he never SAID she couldn’t be brave, he just inferred it, then startled us with a possibility we’d dismissed as ridiculous.

The most common “rounded-character” is the hero of the novel type called the “bildungsroman”, which is basically a story devoted to the development of the main character, usually a young one.  It’s to be expected in stories like these that the MC will go from being a kid to being an adult.  That’s character development defined, right there.

But what about stories that AREN’T about kids?  Adults, maybe?  The development doesn’t need to be so obvious; just let those characters learn to learn from mistakes, or go from being a take-charge person to letting others handle some of the story’s problems.  Maybe one of your characters likes coffee, but through the course of the story comes to prefer tea.  That’s character development of a more subtle kind, but can be even more important than the sweeping change of a coming-of-age story.

But all of this is kind of scientific.  Perhaps the best way to ensure that readers enjoy your characters is to enjoy them yourself.  That doesn’t mean you have to LIKE the characters, or love them, or even tolerate them.  Just enjoy them.

Go watch “Quest for Camelot”.  Wouldn’t you lay odds that the script writers LOVED to write the scenes with the bad guy in them?  He’s great!  He’s twisted, evil, hilarious, and he knows it.  He plays the foil for the super-serious heroine and her compatriots.  Sure, you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with him, but he’s the perfect bad guy.

You don’t have to like the soppy girl-next-door or the punk-down-the-street from your main character.  Heck, you don’t even have to like your main character!  I’ve got a couple of them that I just cannot stand, but they’re great characters.

You need to know your characters.  They need to be able to sit down beside you and have long conversations.  Sure, if you want to, plot those characters out in every detail, planning their lives down to the second.  Keep careful notes about them to help you avoid inconsistencies.  But you’d better KNOW those characters.  If one of them walks in on you in the coffee shop one morning, you need to be able to recognize him by the nervous twitch in his hand when he counts out his change.  When she stumbles across you in the parking lot and offers to tie up your bleeding leg where you got knifed by that mugger, you’d better know how many years she went to college and how happy she was to get her medical degree.

Characters aren’t robots, mechanical devices to keep your story going.  They’re PEOPLE.  Remember it.  Make them your friends, your enemies, your acquaintances.  When you meet someone in real life, you don’t itemize their reactions, their likes and dislikes, and their abilities.  You know them well enough to remember all of that, or you don’t know them well enough to care.  Look at your characters the same way.

It’s the best way to make ‘real’ characters.  If your characters are fakes on note-cards, they’ll be fakes in your novel.  If your characters are so believable you wake up in the night, afraid your bad guy will walk through the door, and hoping your hero will be fast enough to save you, you’re doing something right.

One thought on “Writing realistic characters

  1. Maybe you’d enjoy reading what I blogged about this topic last year: http://wp.me/p30cCH-tD

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