“A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.” Caryl Phillips
The most memorable characters in literature are those who are marked by one huge flaw. They are human. Or at least human-like. We all know that humans are influenced by life, by their environment, their experiences, etc. They have hopes, dreams, pain, and failures. They are shaped by their past and their perception of the future. Humans are a mystery to behold, and a writers greatest asset is to accurately portray that mystery.
Characters, therefore, must be more than a representation of the human form, they must display those human qualities realistically. A writer must build their characters from the inside out, show the world who they really are through the story they are telling. Right?
What makes a character realistic?
Think about some of your favorite characters. Why are they your favorites? What makes them stand out from the hundreds of stories you’ve read in your time? What makes them…realistic?
Characters should act, react, and think the way that we think. In the thousands of years since humans appeared on the earth, we have not changed all that much. Our situations have, but the essence of humanity has not. We still cry when we’re upset, we laugh when we think something is funny, we get angry when someone assaults our beliefs. So, our characters should reflect that as well.
But how do we do that in our writing?
Building character: Of course, we start at the beginning. Who is our character? We should know our characters almost, if not more, as well as we know ourselves. Everything from physical appearance to why he/she hates flying. If someone interviewed us about our character, we should be able to answer most questions. How old is your character? Where were they born? What kind of childhood did they have? What significant event helped to shape who they are today? We should know what makes them laugh, cry, angry.
Some writers keep a profile of their characters. Some write out the character’s back story (regardless of whether it goes into the novel or not). Some put their characters in certain situations, just for fun, and see how it plays out. All great ways to get to know your character.
Dialogue/Actions: The best way to introduce your character and their different quirks, personality layers, background, etc is the adage—show, don’t tell. Through dialogue and action, a reader gets to know your character. A subject for another post, another day, as my point is actually that the dialogue and actions need to be realistic. If you’re writing a story about a modern-day teen, you aren’t going to use the same tone/style you would for a medieval princess. Right? Even deeper, a male thinks/acts differently than a female. They have different outlooks, different cares, different ways of moving. If your female and male characters react the exact same way to an incident, something is wrong.
Creative storytelling: This was pointed out to me in one of my first novels. Towards the end of the book, my male protagonist and his friend, black belts in karate, take out about six men who attack them. One of my crit partners told me this was unrealistic to her because I had not given the reader any clues before that point in the story that these two men could hold their own. So, in my rewrites, I moved a couple of scenes to the karate dojo and added some dialogue to other scenes talking about teaching kids, winning tournaments, etc. So by the time the reader reached the point where these two men kick some major bad guy booty, it made sense—it wasn’t a surprise. So be sure to work in character personality traits, hobbies, etc throughout the story.
This goes for your characters that aren’t human as well. Some of us write supernatural, sci-fi, or fantasy and some of our characters come from our over-active imagination. This is great. But for the readers to relate to them, understand them, even sympathize for them, the creative characters still need to exhibit human-like qualities. We can go into that more later on.
For now, consider the characters in your WIP (or playing in your mind). Are they realistic? How can you make them more so? Are you doing a good job of showing them in your story?
“For me the obligation is to present my characters realistically. They must be credible human beings even if the circumstances they are in are ‘incredible,’ as they are in The Collector. But even the story, no matter how bizarre, no matter what symbolisms are involved, has to be possible. . . . Believability must dominate even the most outlandish situation.” John Fowles