02 Mar How to Write Realistic Characters
Some characters just stay with you. Long after you’ve closed the pages on a book, the impact of them just lingers in your mind. We think about them now and then over the years. We imagine what it would be like to be a part of their world for a day. You might debate with author friends on how interesting, cool, redeemable, or even villainous they are. How often have you heard the question, ‘Which fictional characters would you love to have over for dinner?’
When a character is written well, they rise up out of the page and become so much more. We talk about them, they inspire new characters, events are launched, tv shows might be created based on these literary figures. Nowadays, thousands of fanfiction stories are written about so many favourite characters.
Think of Elizabeth Bennet, the lively Jane Austen character said to be ahead-of-her-time. Of course, everyone has heard of the tragic couple Romeo & Juliet – no matter how many times I have watched the movie, I still plead for Juliet to waken just a moment sooner. And there are many interpretations of both Sherlock Holmes and Bruce Wayne who have massive fanbases around the world. For fans of YA novels, there was a huge outcry at the death of (spoiler alert) Rue who was only twelve-years-old in The Hunger Games book and movie.
When you think of Audrey Hepburn, we immediately picture Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s with her black shift dress and oversized sunglasses. And talk to any James Bond fan and they could instantly quote you, “Shaken, not stirred”. Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl was known for wearing headbands religiously in the early seasons of the show.
So, what signature style does your main character have? Do they have a favourite colour? Is there a hat or piece of jewellery that’s favoured? Perhaps, they wear comfortable boots or dainty shoes. Keep in mind you may have to do some research if your book is set in a particular time period or country.
Sometimes, I use actors as loose inspiration when writing my own characters. If I’m ever lucky enough to have Forever Gone made into a movie, the actors I originally picked will be far too old to play my characters! So, keep in mind that these are just inspiration and don’t base your characters on real people.
This is only a tool to help you visualise your characters in 3D. You might want to create a Pinterest board or print out images of actors and outfits to create your characters. Personally, I like to leave some of the detail up to the reader!
Body language is hugely important and a key factor in showing, not telling. So many new authors (and even the experienced ones) have a habit of telling the reader exactly what the character is feeling. But in real life, we don’t have subtitles! We often show how we are feeling through body language and facial expressions.
The exact percentage of how much we express ourselves through body language and expression has been debated over the years but the fact is, we do use both significantly. Give some of your characters some different ‘tells’ to indicate to the reader or other characters how they may be feeling. Try a couple of variations so it’s not repetitive e.g. one character doesn’t need to slam their fist every time they are angry or tighten their belt to show a sense of determination. A good balance of consistency and variety is important in a great book.
Even the best people have terrible habits. And rightly so, none of us is perfect. Kind people bite their nails. The friendliest can be rude sometimes. Cruel villains can be incredibly kind to people they like. There is a saying that goes something like, ‘If we were all judged by our worst days, we would all be monsters.’ Your main character can make bad decisions and fail but still be the hero by the end. Villains can be redeemed (although this trope is getting a bit to common at the moment) but they can also just have small moments of good between the grandeur of their dreadful deeds. Good versus evil can be in the one person!
Every character will have a purpose and desires and needs. Don’t forget about your secondary and background characters too. Not every good character will do things for the greater good, some will just want change to protect their family, others will be focused on the financial or other kinds of benefits. If a character takes an action, consider not only the consequences but the reasons behind it. If something feels out of character, perhaps you need to consider that 1) it shouldn’t be this particular character taking this action or 2) why would this character suddenly have a change of heart?
A World Beyond
Your main characters are not your entire world in your book! Now, I’m not saying you need to create a huge expansive world like J.R.R. Tolkien or G.R.R. Martin but you can show there is life beyond the characters you give life to and it doesn’t take much at all. And a simple way to show there are other people out there beyond your named characters is to show a lived-in world. This could anything from lights on in houses in the distance, graffiti on nearby walls, mdntioning the history of your world, naming place that aren’t part of the main story or visited, letters sent from elsewhere.