Characters are real people, too

So what makes a good character?

There have been dozens (or hundreds, probably) of blogs, books, and other articles written about how to write a good character. This is my small contribution to that subject of how to write well-rounded, believable characters full of depth and passion that readers will fall in love with.

I’ll keep this list short, since most of the other blogs/books/etc could probably do a much better job. But here I’ll cover three things that I believe, if utilized properly, can enhance and really help bring to life any sort of character.

So let’s say you’ve got your character’s name, some background information, and their role in the story all worked out. You have their personality, their appearance, and even some likes and dislikes in mind. These are all important, of course, but a character—just like a real person—is much more than that.

1. Everyone’s got a little quirk, vice, or weakness.

This doesn’t have to a major, plot-altering deal. It can be something like the rough and tough motorcycle guy who loves Julie Andrews’ songs, or the exercise-and-organic-food enthusiast who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. An unexpected habit, a funny catch-phrase, a nervous tick—these are the little things that everyone has, and can add another layer of depth to your characters.

In my current WIP (work in progress), my main character Lyylia is Finnish, and she speaks several languages in addition to her native tongue. However, Swedish is not one of those languages, and in the book, she’s just moved to an area of Finland where Swedish is as widely spoken as Finnish.

This is not a major plot point, actually, and most of the book does not take place in Finland at all. However, it’s a small insecurity for Lyylia, because she is the sort of person who is accustomed to being in control of herself and her situation. Not knowing one of her nation’s official languages is a weakness that she doesn’t like, especially when a friend of hers (who does speak Swedish) gives her friendly teasing about it.

2. Nobody’s perfect

This is different from the first point, because this is more about a major flaw or mistake rather than a quirky weakness. This is often a major plot point, as the character works to overcome their problem, or their mistake influences the direction of the story. And just like good characters aren’t all good, bad characters aren’t all bad. Even the worst bad guy can have a redeeming trait.

For this example I’ll use Lucy Pevensie, from The Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy could perhaps be called the most “perfect” of all of the Pevensie siblings, and she’s the most loyal to Aslan. In Prince Caspian, she sees Aslan when the others don’t and knows she should follow him, but she weakens and listens to the voices of the others telling her she’s imagining things. Later in the book Aslan rebukes her for not being bold and following him anyway; if she had followed him, it would have saved her and the group a lot of time, aggravation, and potential danger.

Lucy’s mistake in listening to the voices of the group instead of the inner voice she knew she should be obeying didn’t alter the entire plot of the book, but for this otherwise near-perfect character, it was a big deal and a big mistake.

3. Your character isn’t you

As the writer, naturally a part of you is in every one of your characters. But not all of your characters should actually be you. (This applies to fiction only, of course; if you’re writing a memoir or something that’s heavily based on real people and real events, then stick to what you’re doing).

Remember the personality, background, and motivation of your character—all of these things contribute to how they would respond to any given situation. And this may be completely not how you yourself would respond.

I’ll use another character of mine, from a temporarily-shelved WIP. This character is rough, rude, and hyper—she likes to pick fights, swears like a sailor, and hasn’t read a book since high school. In short, she is the total opposite of me. So as she interacts with the other characters and situations, I have to remember that she would not do the things that I would do.

Honestly, if I knew this woman in real life, I’d probably strongly dislike her, but in the story, she’s one of my favorite characters—perhaps because she’s so different from me, and writing her character really stretches me.

These three points apply to protagonists, antagonists, and even supporting characters. While it’s important to keep your major characters major and the minor characters minor, even characters with a small role in the story can be three-dimensional. As I stated at the beginning, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and many other authors have done a much better job of writing about how to write characters.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this anyway, though! Any other writers out there who would like to add favorite character-writing tip? Please comment!

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3 thoughts on “Characters are real people, too

  1. Pingback: The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: That Pesky ‘s « StorytellerGirl

  2. Pingback: An Interview with your Character | StorytellerGirl

  3. Pingback: 5 Things I Like about Stories | StorytellerGirl

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