More on Making ‘em Real: Characters, that is
By: Deb Nam-Krane
I suspect I’m like many writers: the majority of my characters weren’t created by me but were fully blown people I “met”. They were doing something or responding to someone else, but much about them was already there, waiting for me to describe it on my pages. To those who want to know “No, really, where did they come from?” I can only respond “Does it matter?” Did some of them resemble people I’d met years before? Were a handful based on other characters I’d met in other works? I’m sure, but part of my job is to help them come into their own.
I’ve never been able to create a character who was simply a device. I’ve tried- haven’t we all?- but it doesn’t take long before they or one of my other characters look at me as if I’m insulting them. Well, we can’t have that. So how can I make sure my characters are realistic?
- Start them off in mundane situations before you put them in unusual ones. (If your work doesn’t have any, use this as a writing exercise.) How do they handle walking from work to home? Casual conversations with coworkers? A trip to the supermarket? Do they roll their eyes with every delay? Try to be accommodating? Tune everyone out so they can go to their happy place? Why? Figure out what makes them tick in an everyday setting before you put them in a high-pressure one. And if you can’t imagine them keeping the drama to a minimum no matter what, well, that’s good to know too.
- Ask them who the most important person is to them. Is the answer obvious, or do you have to taunt and cajole to get it out of them?
- Ask them what they want, then make then explain why. What is their happy ending? Know that even if you have no intention of giving it to them.
- Now ask them what’s keeping them from getting it. If I may take some liberties with Mies vander Rohe, God is in the flaws. The mainstay of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories is that the victim’s character- and primarily his or her flaws- was the key to their demise. Your characters’ flaws are the most important reasons why it takes between 20 and 80 thousand words for them to arrive at some resolution, if any.
- Focus on them, not the plot. Put your characters in situations and give them circumstances, but don’t force the action. See what they will do. Once you get to know your characters, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what they will do in most situations, but when you’re still getting acquainted, don’t force them into anything they don’t easily volunteer to do. You can- and plenty of writers do- but unless you’re willing to spend some time explaining or at least acknowledging why they performed some logic-defying gymnastics (and probably complicating your plot), let the characters tell you what they want to do instead. That will most probably lead to a more believable overall story and, as a nice bonus, just might lead to a little growth. Win-win-win.
When Deb Nam-Krane isn’t filling in the blanks for her fictional new adult characters, she’s getting inspiration from the complicated people who shaped history. She recently wrote the history section of Moon Travel Guide: Thailand. She’s also been reviewing books for a decade and is currently fascinated with anything that challenges assumptions about what we think we know.–
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- Writers, Why Are Character Lists a Waste of Time? (damyantiwrites.wordpress.com)
- World, Character, or Plot? Why do you read and write the way you do? (writingsnippets.wordpress.com)
- Characters from Gray (fantageland93.wordpress.com)
When Deb Nam-Krane isn’t filling in the blanks for her fictional new adult characters, she’s getting inspiration from the complicated people who shaped history. She recently wrote the history section of Moon Travel Guide: Thailand. She’s also been reviewing books for a decade and is currently fascinated with anything that challenges assumptions about what we think we know.