Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Making Real Characters by Liz Holbert

Harold Crick (Stranger than Fiction) was very, very real.

I used to think one of the most refreshing things about literature is the one-ness of the characters - how they are one personality. When you and I think about ourselves we seem to be several people all at once. But I’m learning the more real you make your characters the more engaging they make your literature and the more likely they will actually surprise you.

Three ways to make real characters:

1. Make sure you know who they are. It’s important to outline your story but it's just as vital to know your characters. When the plot runs dry, real characters can carry you. Use this writing exercise to help you get to know your characters. Make a list of personal information about them: birthday, age, eye color, flaws, temperament, habits. What’s their favorite color or favorite sport? What are their favorite foods? Are they allergic to shellfish?
Now that you have a list of info, try this next exercise to really see your character in action. Imagine him or her in situations that you experience in your life. Given the choice of what to listen to on the radio during the work commute what would he choose to listen to? Now, you don’t have to painstakingly outline every character in your book. You don’t need to know the food allergies of the guy who gives your character a sandwich in chapter four.

2. Make your characters complex. Think about personality tests. No matter how many you take, you’ll find you don’t completely fit into any one mold. Neither should your characters. But create complexity carefully. Don't overdo it. You can make your characters so complex they contradict themselves. You and I may contradict ourselves frequently in real life. Though complexity is encouraged, contradiction is confusing in fiction. For example, don’t have your character tell everyone that they’re not emotional then make them cry every other chapter. As an exercise, think about complexities in the people you know and are close to. How can you work that kind of complexity into your characters?

3. Make your characters speak like real people. Listen to the way people speak. In college, a writing professor told us to sit somewhere where we could overhear a conversation and write it down word for word, pause for pause. This is an excellent practice in learning how real people talk. So many times in fiction, dialogue is totally unrealistic to real life. People say each other’s names too often and speak like they’re written rather than real people. Study the way people actually talk to each other. And be warned: don’t let people know you're writing down their conversations, especially if they’re strangers! It’s a little creepy if you think about it. Plus, people don’t tend to have realistic conversations if they know their conversations are being recorded.
So now that you’ve learned a few ways to make your characters more realistic, how can they surprise you? In my college writing class we talked about this a lot and I thought it was kind of a joke until it happened to me. I was working on a fiction book and started to make my main character do something (let’s say metaphorically it was walking down a hall). Halfway down the hall she turned the other direction, diverging from the path I originally wanted her to go. Because I knew her so well, I realized that she couldn’t do what I had planned for her to do because it was outside of the realm of her character. It’s kind of scary, but also exciting when your character takes off a whole different direction than you plan.
In a project like NaNoWriMo – your character’s ability to surprise you is vital when you’re working toward a word count. If you know him or her well enough, you can almost literally set her down on the paper and let her run around herself. Put her in a situation like going to the mall or buying a pet and see what she does! It’s kind of fun! And maybe you won’t end up using it when you revise, but it will help you even more in understanding your character.

How real are YOUR characters? Have they surprised you so far?

Liz Holbert (@emholbert4) is a Christian, a writer, a librarian, and a big fan of corn dogs. She believes firmly in the value of fiction and story not just as a means of escape (though that is important) but as a way to speak truth. She blogs and is currently working on a young adult novel. Her writing can be found at places like Relevant magazine online and Blogging for books from Multonomah. Two of her literary inspirations are J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck. She holds fast to the adage: just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it’s not true.


  1. One of my favorite tactics with characters is to conduct an "interview" with them. I sit down and pretend I'm asking them questions. The tougher the questions, the more they tend to surprise me. It can be a blast and generate a lot of insight.

  2. That's a really good idea, I like it :)

  3. One of the things I've done with my current manuscript is make the conscious decision to let the characters tell on each other. I'm working with a set of four brothers, with the added dynamic that two of the never lie, and the other two aren't afraid to lie if it suits them - but they never lie to family. I don't *say* that explicitly in the text, that's just the decision I made. The upshot is that I've got a tale that's remarkably character-driven, far more than anything else I've written up to this point.

    Thanks for such an insightful article!!

  4. Thanks Angela! :) That's a neat idea, and probably really helpful elements of their personalities!