Have you ever finished a good book, closed the cover and then felt a sense of loss?
Does it sometimes feel like a friend or family member has moved away when the story is over?
I feel that way sometimes. And when I do, I know that the author did a great job of creating the characters. These characters weren’t just a collection of character traits, and descriptions. They were real, living, breathing people whose live mattered.
Setting, plot and pacing are all essential elements in any good story. But the one thing that really makes a story come alive, is having realistic, memorable characters.
Writing compelling fiction is like a magic trick. It is an illusion. Readers are reading words on a page, but when it all comes together, it clicks, and the world seems real.
Like with magicians, there are some tricks to the craft which can help you round out your characters, and make them real. In my novel, Summer on Earth, my two main characters are a young boy, and a space alien stranded on Earth. These characters are so different, and for the story to work, I needed to make them, as well as the other characters, feel real.
Here are a few things that I do with my writing that helps to breathe life into my characters.
- Physical description and identifying characteristics – When you first introduce a character in a story, you describe them. Personally, I believe that less is more. Rather than giving a very detailed rundown of how the character looks, I give a brief physical description, and let the reader fill in the rest with their own imagination. The character is revealed more by their actions, what they do and what they say.
- Give them a goal – Every character, even minor ones, should have a goal in the story. What is the one thing they want more than anything else in the world? What drives and motivates them? If you know what your characters want, that determines how they will act, and that makes them more real.
- Emotion – This is the secret sauce. As humans, we identify and respond to emotions. If someone smiles at us, we smile back. If someone around us is in a bad mood, that can be contagious. The same thing goes with your characters. If they lack emotion, they come off as flat. When you give them real emotions, we identify with that and they will seem more authentic.
- Everyone is the hero in their own movie – It’s easy to make your hero likable, but in the villain or antagonists mind, they are the hero. From the view of your story, they might be evil and nasty and stupid, but not in their own mind. While writing, think of what the world looks like from each character’s perspective. It will add depth and fullness to your characters.
- Dialogue – What your characters say to each other is a way to move the story forward, to reveal information the reader needs to know, and a great way to reveal who that character really is. Everyone talks differently. They use different vocabulary, different phrases and everyone has their own vocal tics. A professor will talk differently than a cowboy, and a teenager will speak differently than a young mother. The way your characters talk will let you know if they have power, or not, their level of education, how they feel about the person they are talking with, their level of confidence and so much more. This can be a great way to build a character who is memorable.
These are just a few things that work for me. Think of your characters as real people and they will take on their own life on the page.
What makes characters real for you?