How to Make Your Fictional Characters Seem Real

You overhear two people on a blind date, and the first few minutes of your conversation goes something like this…

“Hi, I’m Bubba.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Whitney. Where are you originally from?”

“Birmingham, Alabama.”

“Oh, a gun-toting, God-fearing redneck that hates anybody that isn’t exactly like you, believes the War of Northern Aggression never ended, and is currently going through a divorce from your cousin. Let me guess… you’re gonna order country-fried steak. Am I right?”

“Right on all fronts, Karen! And where are you from?”

“New York City.”

“Ah… So, you’ll be ordering pizza or a bagel. I’m assuming you live on a trust fund your daddy set up so you can shop seven days a week, right? What’s more… You don’t know how to drive because you’ve taken cabs all your life.”

“Wow! It’s like you know me already!”

Talk about two boring, boring, BORING characters…

Adding depth to your characters adds depth to your story.

When you rely on the surface-layer of a stereotype to say what you need, the approach falls flat and readers get bored. For example, a protagonist that’s a control freak and a Republican and an antagonist that’s a hippie and a Democrat will only take your story so far.

Stereotypes exist, and they’re easy to use because they’re familiar and recognizable. But they aren’t interesting. No surprise. No mystery. Blah.

Don’t paint yourself into a corner by relying on stereotype. 

Too often, after establishing your formulaic character, you drop the stereotype (without a believable and compelling reason) to fulfill what you need your characters to do to move the story forward.

For example: Carolyn is a Republican control freak who likes her world clean and organized. But when she foregoes a boutique hotel stay (where things are guaranteed to be clean and organized) to stay with Peace, a Democrat hippie and in his mess of an apartment filled with 15 rescued dogs, cats, and birds, Carolyn loses creditability with the author and the reader.

Don’t confuse stereotypes and archetypes. 

The term stereotype denotes a societal-accepted generalization about a specific collection of people that oversimplifies their qualities into predictable or clichéd types. Think jocks (stupid), redneck (gun-lovers) and Germans (Nazis).

An archetype is an original pattern or model for a type. Think willing hero (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher), seductress (Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara), and free spirit (Jane Austen’s Emma).

An archetype uses the type of person as a starting place for a memorable character. A stereotype uses it as the end point.

Know your characters inside and out.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, knowing your characters—main, secondary, and tertiary—inside and out aids the writing process immensely.

Once you’ve set on a character and have a basis for his/her existence, i.e., hero, villain, antihero, sidekick, mentor, etc., time to add the bells and whistles.

  • Physical Description: A basic mental picture of each character gives you a handle of how you want him/her to appear to your readers and can help you develop character attractions and interactions.
  • Personality Type: Cardboard characters are boring. Add spice and flavor to your characters by giving them interesting traits and mindsets that make your readers care.
  • Strengths and Weaknesses:  These attributes ensure your story arc has somewhere to go that’s semi-realistic (We’re writing fiction, after all.), believable, and endearing. These simple answers help you challenge your characters and make them shine.
  • Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC): Goal… What must he/she have or be? This drives your story forward. Motivation… Why does he/she want that? This depends on her goal. Conflict… What/who blocks him/her from him/her goal? What’s his/her skin in the game? (Hint: Don’t settle for the first answer to each question. Dig deeper.)
  • Backstory: Each of us are who we are because of where we’re from, how we’ve lived, what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve gained, what we’ve lost, etc. 90% of the information you develop for each character will not directly become part of the story you tell your readers, but knowing these elements makes writing your characters and their thoughts and actions easier.
  • Tics, expressions, rituals, habits, quirks, etc.: Items like these make your characters appear human and give them their own voices and personalities. But don’t overload a character with too many. Pick one and run with it.

Now, go forth and envision some incredibly interesting characters.

Write on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *