Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How to Create Realistic Characters


Readers need to feel a connection to fiction or they won’t continue reading. If they don’t, they will simply say: So what? Then they’ll toss what they’re reading aside and look for something else. Since writers put their blood, sweat and emotional existence into giving birth to their babies, it’s natural to want to have our work read.
How do we create fiction that readers will care about? The answer lies with the characters. Writers must first know their characters. It is not enough to have a general idea of a character in your head when you start writing. You have to live and breathe the character, know him/her the way you know yourself. In essence, realistic characters are extensions or facets of yourself. Create a detailed written character study of each main character before you begin to write your story or novel.
Here are items to consider:

Names
Shakespeare asks: What’s in a name? Clearly, a whole lot. A sweet young thing might have a soft-sounding name while a villain might have a hard-sounding one. What about ethnic names? Are they appropriate or inappropriate for your work?
Another thing you need to keep in mind is not to give characters names that might confuse readers. Names that are too similar in nature--for instance, Jane and Jana--should belong in different stories.
The name of your character will likely cause an assumption of gender, unless you are trying to keep it ambiguous. When I introduced African-American detective “Bert St. Croix” early in the novel THE DROWNING POOL, it comes as something as a surprise that she is a woman. She is tall, strong and fierce. A more masculine name fits her character. Readers don’t learn her back story right away, only the contrast that she has great sympathy and compassion for those who are in need of help but is tough with criminals.
Nicknames are also something to consider. Does your character have a nickname like “Bert" short for “Roberta”? What might that suggest about the character?

Age:
Age at the time of the story is significant. Is your story about an adult, a teenager, a child? Also consider how the time period the character lives in effects personality and beliefs. This is especially important in historical fiction. Character voice is also a consideration.
 In THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY, the novel is told from two distinct viewpoints--that of a teenage boy and his troubled mother. Point of view is very important. Vocabulary and use of language are unique to each character. Also, the reader understands things the characters do not comprehend. Dramatic irony can build tension and suspense.

Back Story
Although you know your character’s back story or personal history, the reader should learn it slowly, piece-meal. This adds to the mystery. It makes readers want to turn the pages to find out more details about the character.  I prefer to make my main characters sympathetic but complex. Maeve, the main character in TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS, lives in Regency London and has suffered much cruelty in her early life. She now does everything she can to help others, particularly orphans.

Appearance
It’s important to know how your characters look. Not only should you have a picture in your mind but you need to describe in words how the characters appear: short, tall, handsome, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, eye color, hair color.
Mannerisms are important as well. Does your heroine bite her nails, twist locks of her long hair? Does your hero flex his muscles? Does your villain speak in a soft, menacing voice? In THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, teenage Danna is a pretty girl but doesn’t think she is.

Relationships
Start first with the family members, especially if they are an important part of the story. Who are the parents, siblings and extended family of your character? It’s not enough to just come up with names for them when developing your main subject. What are they like? Provide descriptions, personalities, etc. Are there any problems your character has with them? Kim Reynolds, the academic librarian sleuth first introduced in THE INFERNO COLLECTION, has a complex family dynamic that includes dark secrets.
What about friends? If they play a part in the story, we need to know your main character’s interactions with and feelings about them. In the Kim Reynolds mystery series, Kim comes to love police detective Mike Gardner. Their relationship is complicated in THE TRUTH SLEUTH by the return of Mike’s wife, Evelyn, who becomes THE BAD WIFE in the 4th novel in this series.
Kim and Bert St. Croix also become close friends, and in THE BAD WIFE, they work together and quite literally save Mike’s life.

Personality
 Get to know your character’s strengths and weaknesses, attitudes, fears, obsessions, special talents and hobbies. How does your character think, speak, act? What do other characters say about him/her?
Weave body language in with dialogue. This often creates subtle emotional signals. What is said may be in contrast to what the character actually thinks and feels.
When you write a scene where there is interaction between characters, try to visualize it as you would see it in a film. There’s nothing wrong with having the image in your mind of real people. It’s also okay to eavesdrop on conversations and be an objective observer which will provide you with material for your writing.

Okay, let’s sum up:

1. Be selective in choosing the names that convey what you want readers to visualize about your character.
2. Appearance is important. What does your character look like? Description can convey much about character. But don’t overdo it. As the old saying goes: show don’t tell.
3. What is special about your character’s speech? Are there unique phrases used? Dickens was a master of this. Also, dialogue should seem natural.
4. Get into the mind set of your character. How does your character think?  
5. How does your character act and interact with others?
6. What do other characters say about him/her?
7. Does the entire presentation have verisimilitude? Do your characters seem real and believable?

Your comments, observations and input are very welcome here!

35 comments:

  1. Excellent advice. Back story can be important, but too often we see it dumped in like a load of fertilizer.

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  2. The list at the end is an excellent summary and guide for writes. I keep the details about my characters on notecards, with a notation on which series novel they appear in. If I don't do this, a character who grew up with six siblings could end up in another book as the younger of two boys. Details, details!

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    1. Hi, Susan,

      That's a great method for keeping track of characters, especially when you are working with a series. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Great tips, Jacqueline! The books I've read that I most remember are the ones with well-developed and realistic characters.

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    1. I agree with you, Pat, memorable characters that we emotionally relate to make a book or short story matter.

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  4. Hi, John,

    I agree. I think the big difference between beginning and professional authors is the way they handle the back story or history of a character.

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  5. Very good advice, Jacqueline :) I use character sheets...but, I like the idea of notecards. I may use that :) Also, I thought your suggestions on back story were excellent :)

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  6. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Loretta. I think character sheets are a good idea as well.

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  7. I love your Bert character, Jacqueline. It's obvious that you "practice what you preach." Good article--thanks!

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    1. Hi, Bobbi,

      Thanks for the praise. I'm glad Bert worked for you.

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  8. Great advice, Jacqueline! You write wonderful characters, so you can give excellent advice, and you did.

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    1. Hi, Jan,

      Thanks. I think you also write memorable characters.

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  9. Solid advice, Jacquie. I use a Steno Pad for character notes (one or more pages for each character as well as timelines. The same goes for setting and weather conditions, etc. Thanks for your advice.

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    1. I appreciate your comments, Betty. You offer excellent advice. Timelines really are important especially in novels.

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  10. Thanks, D'Ann. Hope they prove useful to you.

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  11. Jacquie, I love your weekly posts. I always look forward to them.

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    1. Thank you, Cindy. I believe you could do an excellent one on creating humorous characters.

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  12. Excellent post, Jacquie, all very useful. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Rose. I enjoy reading your posts as well.

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  13. Good stuff, Jacqui. Thanks for the tips. I hate info dumps, too. I'd rather get to know characters the way people do in real life--piecemeal, as you say. For instance, if I hire a plumber, I know what he does. Then maybe we chat and discover we both like XYZ or have mutual friends. And it goes from there. I may never know the reasons for his nervous tic, or tell him about the wrist I broke at 12. Only the necessary info needs to be passed along, and only as needed.

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  14. Hi, Nikki,

    Yes, in real life, people info dump unnecessary or superfluous facts all the time. But in fiction we need to be selective.

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  15. As always, Jacquie your tips and suggestions are always helpful. Characterization is one of my constants when I review books.

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    1. Well-developed characters are crucial. We agree.

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  16. Good helpful advice, Jacqueline, as always.

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    1. Thanks, Earl, although I know you don't need any help developing realistic characters.

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  17. An interesting and useful post, Jacquie. I agree that it can be helpful to have an image of a real person in mind. If I find a character is eluding me I'll sometimes use a newspaper photo to pin him or her down.

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  18. I venture to guess that a lot of romance writers had George Clooney or some other attractive male movie star in mind while creating a hero.

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  19. Your thinking is soooo well organized. It's a gift. Thanks for sharing.

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  20. Thanks, Sharon. Actually, I often think I'm not well-organized which is why I try to make lists.

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  21. An excellent post, Jacquie. I admit that I don't make lists ahead, but will try to reform.I do take notes on eye color, et al.--since editors have caught me in error. It helps to keep a series going so that you already have a lot of information about your characters before you start!

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  22. Hi, Nancy,

    I've made mistakes as well. Names give me the most trouble.

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  23. And don't forget the spear carriers, the secondary characters. A single spreadsheet with just a few columns such as for name, physical appearance, and relationship to the main character works well to organize and put all that information at your finger tips. No one form is suitable for every author and every work. Customize what works for you. For more defined background characters, add another column or two where you note of their personality traits or background.

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