Making Characters Feel Real

I think a good story has interesting and varied characters that remind you of yourself in some way, or someone you know. We are all so different as people that I think it’s important to express some of that in your writing to make your story come alive.

I think a large part of writing is intuitive, and the way to get better is to write and read a great deal – so discouraged writers, don’t give up! =) Like many endeavours – whether it’s purely artistic or even coding – it takes a while to find your voice, your style.

So I thought about how I write my characters, and here are a few tips off the top of my head on how to give them the breath of life.

  1. Have a backstory for your main characters at least sketched out in your head. I think this is very important. You don’t need to have every detail ironed out, but think about the basics and how their behaviour or reactions might stem from that. If they are an only child or grew up as a latchkey kid, do they tend to be more of a loner? If they traveled a lot, do they have a passion for different foods or maybe an aversion to some? Maybe they’re beer drinkers because their dad was a beer drinker, or if they grew up in a big family, do they tend to feel they need to be a little loud to be noticed? Then when you write, try to think a little about these things when you put fingers to keys, especially in pivotal situations. In my ‘Liliana Batchlor Series’ I knew from the get-go that Lily’s mom was the source of her angst and doubt and I tried to hint at it, show how some traumatic event in her past still haunts Lily and pulled on real life dysfunctional behaviour I have witnessed to give flavour for their relationship. (The negative voice in her head was also a reminder of her mom, and how she hadn’t dealt with that.) As for minding information and keeping it straight… I use OneNote (I’ve mentioned my love of that programme in a previous post), to keep track of families, details, places and major events. This is absolutely vital if you’re writing a series or a large book and need to keep a bunch of things straight.
  2. Think about the way they talk, phrases they prefer or hobbies they have. This is about rounding out your character a bit more and makes them more interesting and believable. Everyone in your life has something they enjoy doing… even if on the surface that person claims to be (or you think they are) boring. Whether it’s devotion to a dog or cause, or a weekly board game session, I think these glimpses into a more complicated person will remind readers of themselves or someone they know and make them feel like they are getting a slice of a person’s life rather than an object concocted solely for a purpose. Do they like plants? Maybe all their plants are actually plastic because they have terrible allergies and don’t have them around but they miss them – that tells you a little something about them.
  3. If you don’t know a lot about your character’s culture of origin, hobbies or profession, do some research to make it believable. I think this is key if you want to reduce the chance of putting something in that will be immersion breaking, plus it’s fun to learn new things! =) For every obscure hobby or interest that you think no one will know anything about, there’s someone who finds it fascinating. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started reading a book and there has been an incorrect detail about something and I find it frustrating, especially if it’s key to the character, and I know I’m not the only one because I see it on reviews too. The most recent example is a womn who is hot-wiring a car – she had done it a lot in her misspent youth – and cautions the person with her that if she’s forgotten how to do it, she’ll be killed. You can’t die from a car battery (it’s 12V DC), but you can get a nasty jolt, and this easily found out detail was just blithely passed over. You’ll probably never get everything correct all the time and there will always be someone who doesn’t like what you write, but paying attention to details will only serve you well in the long run.
  4. Not all heroes are completely heroic, nor are most villains utterly evil. It is easy to get focused on a particular scene or a character fulfilling their prescribed role and we forget that although there is pure evil in the world and I think a great deal of good, (pure good is nigh impossible to achieve), even paragons and villains are a mix of qualities. Flat characters just aren’t believable and probably more importantly, they aren’t very interesting. Unless your antagonist is literally meant to be evil incarnate (*cough* Vaux *cough*)and your protagonist is destined to be a perfect example of kindness, they need a mix of dark and light – so what is that mix? If you think of it long and thoroughly enough, opportunities present themselves in the storyline to flesh out those characteristics. In ‘The Void Chronicles’, as I thought more about Lucas, the world of Galea and what average people would experience in giving him a backstory, I realised there was a lot there to play with; that events in his life could provoke sympathy, rage and things far more complicated and that all of that would weave itself into an interesting character that I wanted to play a deeper part in the story and act as someone Julianna would learn about herself through. Two of my favourite characters of all time are Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. They didn’t start out amazing, although they clearly had a lot of potential, but grew into very real and unique characters with a definite synergy. Wolfe is irascible, particular, arrogant and generally a fairly unpleasant person but he is whip smart, clever and shrewd – not really likeable in a lot of ways, but extraordinarily interesting. Archie isn’t as smart but much more relatable with a bit of street intelligence Wolfe doesn’t have, but he has some flaws himself, although they don’t grate the way Wolfe’s can. They blend together and fight and it’s their differences – and yet how they also complement each other – that makes for a terrific read.
  5. Allow them to be vulnerable in a believable way. We all do things around our closest and most trusted friends and family we don’t do in front of strangers or even casual friends. Every day I sing silly songs to Remus, my sick cat, before he gets his pills (because for some unknown reason he seems to like them) and the only other creature that is stuck with hearing them is my SO – and there it is. So if you want a reader to feel like they are part of the intimate moments of your character’s life, you need to have something that shows them they are. This is particularly important in third person (which is what I almost exclusively write in), where readers who are used to the first person ‘inside the head’ monologue might find third person feels distant or like a movie. Vulnerability breeds trust not only between characters but between the reader and the characters in the story; I am always more invested in the outcome of a novel when I feel there’s skin in the game – as if I’ve shared something important, intimate and personal with them that few others would get to experience. Too much can weigh the story down, but not showing that your characters are vulnerable can make it difficult to form an attachment.
  6. People in real life don’t usually have perfect grammar but try to make certain the interstitial bits – the non-dialogue bits – are correct. Let’s face it, grammar and patters of speech have changed a lot, even in the last ten years (let’s just look at memes, for instance!). Speech patterns are definitely a way to make your characters stand out, ESPECIALLY if you are writing in first person and alternating POVs in chapters – you need the character voices to be especially distinctive there for it to be believable, but it’s also important just in general. If someone is a transplant from another country, take the time to find phrases to make their speech distinct. In general, most people do not speak with perfect grammar and that’s fine. If you’re using quotes, you can have them use words incorrectly, say ‘um’, (in the Liliana Batchelor series, there is a typo I purposely inserted in an email, because that’s often what happens!), stammer, interrupt themselves… that’s the way people have conversations. For the ‘stitching’ – the stuff not in the quotes, like descriptions – try to make sure your grammar is spot on. Not only does it present a good attention to detail that comes across as professional, but it’s also a good demarcation line between the personal, intimate exchanges in the story – conversation! – and creates a clear break.
  7. Characters can change, but make it believable. There’s little worse than getting involved in a story and thinking you understand what is going on, only to be unpleasantly surprised when characters act completely ‘out-of-character’ and do something weird, with no explanation, and things are turned upside-down. Generally, most people are creatures of habit – we have patterns, and structure brings us comfort. That’s not to say that people don’t act out or change things around, but if it’s a real deviation from the character’s personality, think about why they are doing it and how it might fit in to their backstory and the greater story arc. Did they do something unusual because of love? Fear? Trying to break free from parental expectations? Finding a voice? Think about how your main characters drive the story and if you do decide going 180 degrees is the right thing for one of them, understand how in real life people might react and realise your characters should react too.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things, but I hope you’ve found this post useful! Pop into the comments, and tell me what you think, and happy writing, (and reading!).

Warm wishes, Holly

UPDATE: Clarified that it was 12V DC I was talking about – you can get killed by DC shocks at a higher voltage, and fixed two typos!