Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Crafting Realistic Characters

By Kathy Lipscomb

       I read like a writer. I hate that I do that, but I can’t help myself. The one thing that can pull me out of my critiquing way of reading and just place me in the book like I used to as a kid, is amazing characters. Characters that feel realistic, with real emotions, motivations, and high stakes. Lovable characters will make me skip over other writing flaws like they don’t matter. They make me turn each page (just one more!), because I need to know what will happen to these people who’ve become my friends. Not just a want. A need.  
       Crafting lovable characters is important to any story, and in order to do so, there are certain things each character needs.
1)      Characters need to be realistic. This applies to their age and their gender, according to their personality. I’ve started novels, even published well-known novels—popular and loved—where the character acts 22 rather than 14. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine. Now, there are instances where one character acts and speaks like an older person—it’s part of their personality. But the rest of those 14 year olds need to act like 14 year olds. And just because the one character who seems to have an “old soul” acts like an adult, doesn’t mean they can pass for one. Keep your characters true to their age.
       When I write from a male’s perspective, I have my husband read it. I ask him if it sounds like a dude and if there are any actions my character does that sounds too girly. Not all males (or females) are the same, but you don’t want your readers to question the gender and personality of that character. Again, there are exceptions when going for certain personality types, so if you want a more feminine male, then just make sure it’s consistent throughout the whole novel. Consistency is key to a personality.
2)      Voice is crucial. It doesn’t have to be loud and obnoxious. There’s no need for “look at me!” types of voice. But it has to be strong in its own sense. It has to be interesting. If the character is quiet, then make sure his or her thoughts and actions really give us an insight into who they are. Thoughts are still part of a character’s voice. If you’ve ever read the Percy Jackson series, Percy has a distinct voice, and though I enjoy reading from most of the character’s perspectives, it’s Percy who I love the most. His voice is unique, it’s fun, and filled with humor. It’s memorable.
3)      Along with voice are the thoughts and actions of a character, which can be far more interesting than the dialogue. What we say, is often put through a filter, but our minds have no filter. Our minds and our actions really tell who we are. When done well, the pairing of someone’s thoughts and actions with their dialogue can really bring a character to life. Pay attention to what your character thinks and does. It can be more powerful than anything they say in the novel.
4)      This is the one I see people struggle with the most: Motivation and Conflict. People in real life have goals and things that motivate them. Every single person does. It could be writing a novel (oh hey, that sounds familiar) or it could be to be the laziest person in the world. Both are goals. Both give motivation. Whether they are “good” or “bad” goals can drive the plot, but whatever it is, each character must have them. This is not a Sims game where they wander aimlessly until the player tells them what to do. If we want our characters to be real, we need to make them so.
       As authors, we don’t like being mean to our characters. It hurts us to see them hurt. But high conflict where the character has everything to lose makes us, as readers, root for them even more. Readers don’t like it when the characters are too powerful and have nothing to lose. There’s nothing interesting about that. There’s nothing to make a reader turn the page if the characters are fine—there’s no story. An author once told me to think of the worst thing that could happen to that character, and make it happen. Your character will learn and grow, and that’s what we want to see. We want to see them overcome the most horrible thing they could face. As authors, we are kind of evil. We are meant to put the characters that we love in the greatest danger possible and then throw rocks at them.
5)      Villains are your characters too. Don’t let them be flat. Give them life. Give them motivation and complexity. Even better, make me feel sorry for them. Make me wish I could help them to be better, to be good. Give them solid reasons for being a bad guy. My favorite novels and movies are those where the villain is complex and you feel for them. 
       Look at Loki from Avengers. How many people are out there rooting for him when he is the main villain in the first Avengers movie? He’s the antagonist, and he has plenty of reasons to be that way. Voldemort is probably the most evil antagonist I’ve read about, but even he has a horrible back story that made him who he is. He’s not killing just to kill. He believes in his cause with his whole being. Sloan from Alias struggles to be good, going back and forth so much, trying so hard, having goals to save his wife…ugh…it breaks my heart to think about it and I haven’t seen that show for years. Give your readers great villains. Real people.
       When editing your work, read through it and pay attention to just the characters and how they act. Forget the setting, the plot, the tricks and twists (for now, because those things are also important), and just look at your characters. Really try to get into each one’s mindset and see what it is they want, what they need. How does the motivation of one character interact or work against another character? Sometimes great plot points come simply because of the characters themselves.             Great characters drive a story for me. I’ll pass over flaws in a book if the characters are realistic with motivation and goals. They become my friends (and my crushes…) and I want to know what happens to them—even to the point of putting off sleep. And I LOVE my sleep. No seriously. I have a toddler and a newborn, so I do everything I can to get every single hour of sleep that I can. And then an author like Jenn Johansson or Brandon Sanderson comes along with their amazing ability to make me love their characters, and I’m back to being a sleep-deprived mama.

            But a happy one. 


  1. So important! I don't know if you read my last post, but I went to a writing workshop where we had to partner with another writer and have our characters interact with one another. It was a very interesting exercise, because we really had to KNOW our characters and know how they would react to different things. It really reminded me about the depth my characters need to have.

    1. I love that idea. I'm going to implement that into my writing! Let's all get together and pretend to be our characters for a day. :)

  2. Thank you for this terrific advice!! I will surely refer back to this post.



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