Everyone who knows me understands that I’m not much for following hard-and-fast writing rules. I believe that every writer has to follow their own path with writing. There’s one place where I make an exception: creating realistic characters. This is where I take the often-hated advice, write what you know, and live by it faithfully.
I don’t mean we have to method-act everything. You don’t have to go out and commit heinous deeds to be able to write them. But what we do need is a general understanding of what people are like, how they think, and what makes them do what they do. The only place to garner that is through real-life experience and long observation. After all, we all run the gamut of emotion, from low to high, kind to cruel, and we do this in our everyday lives.
Our own thought processes are the best place to mine this sort of data and pass it along to our characters, although we need to do this in an exaggerated way because fictional characters are often at least a smidge larger than life.
We’re going to look at three angles of character creation here: how characters pop into being, how to make them come alive on the page, and a few character-creating resources I’ve found handy.
Giving Birth to Realistic Characters
The process of creating realistic characters varies from author to author. I need a fixed image in my mind of what the character looks and sounds like before I can write them; my characters’ look and feel springs directly from my imagination. Other writers find inspiration all around them: Pinterest, Instagram, their local coffee shop, a magazine, movie, TV show…wherever you find your inspiration, that’s a great place to start.
Once you’ve got a firm fix on at least one thing about that character, make note of it. It could be their appearance, voice, favorite catch-phrase, the way they lean casually yet intentionally against the bookcase, or anything else. Then let your imagination go wild, fill in the blank spaces around that establishing feature, and like pieces of a puzzle, start fitting in the rest.
I often use other favorite characters as inspiration. Sometimes they’re my own characters. Sometimes they belong to others. For instance, if I’m writing a happy-go-lucky open-to-anything character I might hold the Ted Logan character from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in my mind as I’m writing (of course being mindful not to actually steal Ted). There’s nothing wrong with using Ted as a starting point, and since I write romance, there’s nothing wrong with the exercise of turning Ted into a romantic hero, either. A challenge? Definitely! But I love a good challenge, and by the time I’m done, I’ll be the only one who knows I used Ted as inspiration. He will have morphed into someone brand new.
Making Characters Come Alive on the Page
In our minds, our books are perfect. Our settings are vivid, our characters swoon-worthy, our dialog crisp and unique. How do we translate all of that to the page? It’s that obnoxious answer: lots of hard work. I have yet to meet an author who didn’t bemoan the fact that getting characters from our brain into our manuscript is a Herculean effort.
What I’ve found imperative when it comes to making characters pop on the page, to making them seem like real people, is to imbue each one with a different set of characteristics. As we can observe in our everyday lives, no two people are alike. Even if you were writing a world where everyone was supposed to be the same, you would still be able to make them unique. How?
Describe your characters.
We know what they look like. We know how they sound, how they act. Now go and put it on the page…but do that in a realistic way. No one looks in the mirror and thinks my auburn locks are as radiant as the summer sunset. But someone else might look at a character and wax poetic over the way the light hits their eyes, softening the unrelenting brown to honey, or that their shampoo reminds them of candy hearts or strawberry shortcake. Of course, if you’ve got a narcissistic character they might well take note of their own appearance. Even so, the narcissist is still probably not going to remark on the cornflower blue of his own eyes, rather that he looks damned fine today, or that the blue of his shirt matches his eyes. We all know what we look like, and rarely think about it in detailed terms.
Be sure to make any descriptions you use period-appropriate. If you’re writing historical romance, odds are good you shouldn’t be describing a dress sparkling like Pop Rocks. An 18th-century Earl won’t be humming a tune that sounds like Beyonce. (Of course, if you’re writing time travel, all bets are off. That’s a separate discussion, however.)
Give each character their own unique form of expression.
Have you ever read a book written in first-person POV where you had to keep checking to see who was narrating? You don’t want that to happen. It takes hard work and close attention to detail, but as authors it’s our job to make each character sound like themselves, and not like the next character.
If we go back to our Bill and Ted example, you’ll notice that Bill doesn’t sound or act like Rufus. Napoleon Bonaparte doesn’t sound or act like Billy the Kid. These are exaggerated examples, but they make for good illustrations. In Wuthering Heights, Cathy speaks (and thinks) in a far more haughty manner than Heathcliff, reflecting that she has always felt superior to him. In The Kiss Quotient, statistician Stella’s autism gives her a particular speech and action pattern that’s different from suave escort Michael’s. And so on.
Once you start noticing the little things that make a character unique, it’s easier to see them as their own person. Be sure to keep it up through the entire manuscript. That doesn’t mean they should shout Bazinga! every time they open their mouths. But they should do it enough for readers to understand that’s a crutch word for that character, one they use under specific circumstances.
Don’t fear inner narrative.
I don’t need to read paragraph after paragraph of exposition, but let what your characters think and feel show up on the page. Don’t be afraid to let them express those emotions, fears, wishes, and frustration. Readers like to feel things along with the characters. It makes the reading experience more immersive.
Get out of the writing cave and go listen to other people.
Go to a museum, a store, a coffee shop—anywhere your character might go. Be an eavesdropper. If you’re writing teens, go listen to teens. If you’re writing firefighters, listen in on firefighters. Or watch movies, TV shows, or documentaries about that target group. Immerse yourself in the cadence. Because one of the best ways you can make a character come to life is by giving them realistic, relatable dialogue.
Understand that every character you write is the star of their own story.
We talk a lot about the plot arc in a novel (are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you outline? Do you wing it?).
The best writers understand that each character’s arc is as important as the overall plot arc.
From the main characters down to the walk-ons, each of those characters has their own on-screen life to live. You don’t have to clutter the story with it for everyone, but you do have to know it.
Ask yourself what each character you write has to gain, but also know what each character has to lose. These are critical components to making your character realistic. Let’s look at Ted again. At the beginning, his arc is pretty straightforward. Pass the history final and keep playing music, or be shipped off to military school and say goodbye to the band. But as the story progresses a further arc is revealed: pass the history final, or the future of the world with Wyld Stallyns as the soundtrack to all of humanity’s enlightenment will not come to pass. No pressure, Ted.
Be sure to spend as much time on your character’s arc as you do on the plot structure. While the character’s initial goal might not change, their story will, and should.
And still, let your imagination run wild.
The best characters are the ones we can all relate to, but that have that something extra. Something readers may not have experienced themselves. Have you ever wondered why billionaires are so popular in the romance genre? Who wouldn’t want to have access to everything? If we write characters who have that extra glitter, who are a little bit larger than life, readers will flock to them. For example, Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians.
But not every character has to be rich to be engaging. Be sure to give them something special. Whether it’s money, a super-power, a skill, or a characteristic, show the readers what sets them apart. Why they’re worthy of having their own book. Why we should care enough about them to want to spend our precious leisure time with them. From veterinarians to royalty and everything in between, there’s something unique about every single person. Make it shine even as you make it relatable, and you’ll have discovered the secret sauce of characterization.
Character Development Resources
Although I’ve heard it said that character worksheets are just another form of procrastination (and as the Queen of Procrastination, I have opinions on that), there’s not a thing in the world wrong with using them. I suspect all authors do their own version of a character worksheet, really, whether they put in the work up front or make it up as they go along.
I’ve always told myself I have no business writing a character unless I know enough about their pre-story life to give them memories. That doesn’t mean I write a biography for every character; there’s not enough time in my life for that. But I will have a few instances I know about from their formative years. Memories are powerful for us in reality. They’re every bit as powerful for your characters on the page.
Since I’ve been studying astrology and how it affects personality since I was young, I freely admit that astrology is one of my go-to tools. With twelve predefined sets of character traits, it’s easy to find a match. It’s even easier if you know the basics so that you can say “sounds like a Pisces” (or whatever) and go from there.
Other favorite tools are the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (many free tests can be found for this online) and the Enneagram of Personality (again with many free tests available). There are also many character worksheets available online.
Any of these can give you personality baselines that will help enrich your characters.
Additionally, I’ve had fun creating boards on Pinterest, as well as creating novel aesthetics to show off the overall mood of my book (and characters). And never underestimate the power of a good brainstorming session with critique partners and other fellow writers.
What are some of your favorite tips and tricks about creating believable, realistic characters? Share them with us in comments.