Have you ever read a book where the characters seemed more like cartoon characters than real people? As a book reviewer and an author I have run into this time and time again. Honestly, I’ve written characters myself that were not that life-like. In fact for any of us that write fiction, particularly when we are first starting out, it is very easy to write characters that are not for lack of a better word “realistic.” If you’re like me, and love movies like Tomb Raider, and the Indian Jones movies, which are not, exactly realistic, but you’d like to write characters similar to the ones shown in these movies, then you begin to see where the problem is. Because of special effects and great actors, and the fact that we can see the action and are not simply reading about it, we are able to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours and revel in the fiction on the screen. The thing is though, there is a difference between watching a movie on the big screen and writing a book about characters that are larger than life. The truth is it can be more difficult, because the reader has to use their imagination to “see” what is happening in the book. Authors don’t really have the benefit of special effects (well okay, we can write them in, but we still have to make it look like these things can at least feasibly happen), and so we have to use words to describe our characters and the way they react to certain situations in such a way that our readers can see what we are seeing in our heads. Whew! Talk about something that can be really hard. Just try describing a fight scene once while at the same time describing the character’s feelings and making it all sound real and then come back and tell me what you think!
So, what are some techniques that you can use to make your characters more life-like and realistic?
1. Interview your characters. That’s right, come up with a list of questions, or have some fellow writers, or friends do it, and have your characters to answer them. Well, you answer them, but as your character. This will help you to get to know your characters really well so that you can write about them in a realistic fashion.
2. Understand what motivates your characters. Man, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book where it starts out with the character hating someone or a type of someone, and the motivations are explained sort of in the beginning but then a quarter of the way through the book , the character changes their mind, but no explanation for why that change in motivation is given. It’s enough to make me want to tear my hair out! When you interview your characters you will get a good idea of what motivates them, but it is also important to make up a list of why they are the way they are, and why they feel a particular way. For example, if the heroine hates vampires, and is a vampire hunter who is killing as many of them as she can, then you need to show the reader why she feels that way and why she is doing it. Also, if she is going to suddenly fall in love with a vampire then you’d better have a darned good reason for her to be willing to give up on killing them, or suddenly deciding that particular vampires don’t need to be killed. Otherwise if she suddenly changes up with no real reason you are going to tick off readers.
3. Do your research. There is nothing worse than for example reading about a character who is police officer, and you either are also a police officer or know police officers and the writer has the character doing things that are either blatantly illegal and or which most cops would never do, or the author just has the character behaving in ways that are not realistic for a police officer to behave. While sometimes there may be a reason for this that drives the story and the author is simply pointing it out, sometimes it is a lack of understanding about what a police officer, or whatever the character is, does. Don’t get caught in a situation where it is obvious you haven’t done your research because someone out there will catch you eventually, and it could ruin your career as an author, or at the very least make you look like an idiot. So, do your research. While imagination is wonderful and I’m all for it, if your character is a cop, a nurse, a bull fighter whatever, make sure you know enough about that career to write intelligently about it with respect to your character.
4. Put yourself in your character’s shoes. I always do this when I’m writing, particularly when I get stuck in a particular part in a book. I ask myself, “What would (insert character’s name) do in this situation, and why?” Do your best to get inside your character’s head, this goes along with understanding your character’s motivations as well. You can even make lists of different actions and reactions your character could take and then choose the most realistic, and the one that makes the most sense based on the kind of person your character is.
5. Understand your character’s emotional make-up. This goes hand in hand with understanding your character’s motivations and putting yourself in your character’s shoes. This is something you should have a handle on from the very beginning, but even if you don’t, the interview and putting yourself in your character’s shoes should help you get a handle on it if you are shaky to start out with. Make a list of emotional characteristics for each character, and then pair it with the character’s motivations. This will make it a lot easier for you to create a character that is more realistic and less cartoonish.
These are just a few of the things that I do to make sure my characters leap from the pages of my books. Trying even one or two of these tips will help you to understand your characters and write them more realistically, although using all of them will give you an even better chance of writing realistic characters.