No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

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Character development is one of the most important things an author has to master to create memorable and vivid fiction. Without realistic characters, the reader will not be able to relate emotionally to the novel.  After Urgency (in fiction and in opening lines, titles, etc), character development is the most important element of fiction to master.Unlike short stories, which can successfully have a more limited number of characters, novels most often have many characters. The more characters you introduce into a piece of fiction, the more work you have to do to make those characters distinguishable from each other and to make each character come alive on the page, even the minor ones. Further, you don’t want stereotypes — saints or demons — but realistic characters that will live in the minds of your readers after they’ve finished your book. Here are some tips.

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TRADITIONAL CATEGORIES OF CHARACTERS

When being discussed in literature and in creative writing classes, characters have typically been divided into four major types or categories: flat, round, static, and evolving.

Flat Characters
Flat characters are like cartoons or caricatures: they are one-dimensional; they are not realistic human beings because they lack the emotional depth and complexity of living humans. Flat characters often become stereotypes whose behavior is predictable according to their types: villains do bad things, heroes save the day, damsels are in distress, etc.

Round Characters
Unlike flat characters, round characters, as their name implies, are three-dimensional. In other words, they are realistic human characters with the emotional range, depth, and complexity that real people have. Most famous characters in classic literature are round characters. If you find yourself questioning a character’s motives or behavior when reading a piece of fiction, then in all likelihood, that character is a round one.

Static and Evolving Characters
Often people confuse static characters, who do not change throughout the piece of literature, with flat characters, who are not realistic human beings. Round characters can be static. Their being static simply means that they do not change throughout the work. If they do not change and they are round characters, then the author obviously has a reason for that character’s not changing. It may be political commentary, symbolism, irony, etc.

Evolving characters, as their name indicates, change through the course of a work. A flat character, since it is not like a real human being, could not be an evolving character. His changing would automatically elevate him into a round character.

Evolving Characters in Literary vs Commercial Fiction
In literary fiction or other stand-alone books, if a character is going to change and evolve, then, obviously, he must do so in that one book. In commercial fiction, the characters may evolve over a series of novels. Crime fiction series also often have the crime-fighter protagonist changing over the course of the series of books, usually while dealing with different criminals or crimes. If you write a series, remember that most people are usually changed by their experiences, so if you want to create vivid and realistic characters, they should change over the course of the series.

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CREATING REALISTIC CHARACTERS

Even if you are writing commercial fiction and intend to write a series of novels containing the same characters, it is advisable to develop the characters as fully as possible within each novel in the series. In literary fiction, of course, it is essential that the characters come to life in that one book. Although it takes patience and practice, it is not difficult to create realistic, round characters with the depth and complexity of living human beings. Here are some tips to help you.

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• LIKE YOUR CHARACTERS

The most important tip for creating realistic characters is one that is difficult for some writers to accept: Like your characters. An author has a moral responsibility to like all of the characters he creates, even when the character could be considered a villain. If you don’t like your character and are glad when something bad happens to that character, that is an indication that you have not created a round character.

Liking your characters is not synonymous with approving of everything the character does, but it means making a commitment to learn enough about the character so that you understand him, telling the story from the character’s perspective no matter what point of view you write in, and understanding him on his terms rather than on yours.

That doesn’t mean the character must be a hero, but it means that, as a writer, you have empathy for the character and understand his behavior. This empathy will consequently transfer from you to your readers because it will help you create realistic characters.

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• LET YOUR CHARACTERS LIVE THEIR OWN LIVES

Consider your own children, spouses, siblings: each has a unique personality, with good and bad characteristics. You may not like how your husband puts the empty milk carton back in the refrigerator, but you still love him. And if you don’t want to fight all the time, you learn to stop nagging him about it. Your wife might be unfaithful, but be a good mother, so you stay married to her, hoping that she will stop having affairs. Or, you might divorce her, but allow her to share visitation since she has never harmed the children with her adultery. These are real life situations. You need to do this with your fictional characters, too — let them live their own lives and make their own choices.

Forcing a character to live the author’s life rather than his own prevents the character from acting according to his nature.  All characters, if they are to be fully developed, round characters, have to learn (or not learn) from their own lives, not from their author’s life. By allowing the characters to live their own lives, by letting them be true to their own natures, whether or not you personally approve of their choices, you will create characters who are real human beings. In the simplest terms, you are allowing your artistic subconscious to form the characters for you rather than being consciously aware and in control of every aspect of your art. Characters that come from the subconscious are more powerful and realistic.

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• KNOW YOUR CHARACTER’S PAST

Knowing your character’s past makes him more real, even if you don’t use every single piece of this background information in the final work, because it is the character’s history that makes him behave as he does. This approach is especially beneficial for minor characters, who don’t get as much attention as the major protagonists.

For example, let’s say your male protagonist is being unfaithful to his wife — not for the first time. To convey this information to the reader is simple. During one of their fights, the wife can say to her husband, “You promised you’d never leave me, not even when you fell in love with that one from Chicago.” With only a few words, the wife has become more realistic — she’s been hurt before and despite her husband’s continued infidelity, she does not want him to leave her — and we’ve learned more of both the husband’s and wife’s history.

Give each of your characters a complete past, no matter how little of these details appears in the final draft. Some writers like to use questionnaires to help them create their characters’ histories. If you find this helpful, do so. Such questionnaires might include information about the character’s favorite color, food, vacation spot, or pet. It might have questions on the character’s education, income level, marital status, and health.

You don’t have to use a questionnaire, however, to learn about your haracter’s past. In fact, you don’t have to write each character’s entire history before you write the novel. I don’t know everything about my characters before I start writing a novel. I discover their personalities as I’m writing the novel, just as I would learn about another person in real life over time, by spending time with him and getting to know him.

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Writing out every single nuance and idiosyncrasy of your characters before you’ve written the novel and not deviating from that list is one of the surest ways to turn your characters flat. How can they develop, mature, grow, live when you’ve predetermined absolutely every single one of their personality characteristics? Joyce Carol Oates has often said, “If your characters can’t surprise you, then how can you surprise your readers?”

One of the most rewarding ways to discover your characters’ nature is simply to write the novel and trust your characters to reveal themselves. After you finish each scene, ask your characters, “What happens next?”  This process can be quite frightening the first few times, but it can also be exhilarating. Some people feel more comfortable with detailed outlines; some get extremely stressed when they ask the questions and don’t get an immediate response. I’d advise you to try it with at least a scene or two, and see how it progresses. You don’t have to throw away your character outlines if you’ve already made them: just put them away in a drawer and don’t look at them. Give your characters a chance to talk to you and tell you what they’re like. Then let them develop according to their desires. Because your characters will not be pre-conceived or their behavior pre-determined, they will be more realistic.

As long as you know everything about each character’s background before you finish the novel, any pertinent information can easily be inserted in the appropriate places before you submit the manuscript to an agent or an editor, or before you self-Indie publish the book. That’s one of the valuable tasks that revision serves: it allows you to flesh out the characters in earlier scenes after you’ve learned about their personalities in later scenes.

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• GIVE CHARACTERS BOTH POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE TRAITS

One of most difficult premises for some writers to accept is a simple fact of human nature: everyone has both positive and negative personality traits. If you want your characters to live on the page and in your readers’ hearts, you must give characters both kinds of traits. Thus a murderer could have a sense of humor, a juvenile delinquent could be fiercely devoted to his pet, an unfaithful husband could be an ideal father or a talented musician. You need not make a character intentionally evil. In fact, realistic fictional characters are not often consciously evil. They might be selfish, arrogant, etc., but they need not be consciously evil.

Unreliability
When writing in First Person Point of View, you can use unreliable narrators to make them more realistic. When a narrator is unreliable, he is not necessarily lying, and this is an important distinction. In other Points of View, you would have to show that someone is unreliable when interacting with other characters, rather than from the readers’ perspective.

Denial
In addition to using unreliability, you can use denial to make your characters realistic. To explore this area, I recommend *  you read Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self-Deception, by Daniel Goleman. This book is a fascinating explication of the ways human beings unconsciously protect themselves from painful knowledge (or memories) with self-deception — denial (again, not lying). Characters who are unreliable because of denial may be telling the absolute truth as far as they’re concerned. This is an important distinction to creating characters that you like who are realistic.

Positive Illusions
In addition to denial, the use of illusion can help you create realistic characters. Shelly E. Taylor, in her book Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind, explains how positive illusions affect all human beings. The simplified version of Taylor’s theory is this: at times, all people must deceive themselves in order to survive, and these self-deceptions, whether conscious or not, are healthy. Each time you get into a car, for instance, you are under the “illusion” that you will not have an accident. This “healthy” illusion allows you to do things that might otherwise be too frightening, like driving on a freeway during rush hour.

Final Words on Unreliability, Denial, & Positive Illusions
Recognizing these concepts — that people are sometimes unreliable without lying, that they are literally unable to face some knowledge and so therefore do not face it, and that humans live with healthy, positive, beneficial illusions — will help you create realistically human characters. The more you learn about human nature in general, through psychological studies or through direct observation, the more easily you can create realistic characters.

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• IRONY AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Finally, one of the most powerful tools for creating realistic characters is irony. A famous critic once defined irony as “a secret between the author and the reader,” and it’s one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard. To create realistic characters, use ironic tension. Think of irony as a secret between you and your audience, one your characters do not know, and use irony to create more realistic characters. It is challenging to use irony because it is very difficult to show your characters being blind to something without having your audience accuse you of being blind as well. This is especially difficult when you are making political commentary, such as Twain did with his protagonist Huck Finn, who, repeating the beliefs of his society, still believed in the moral “rightness” of slavery. Because the readers know that slavery is not moral, it becomes a “secret” between the author and his readers that Huck has not yet learned. Using denial and irony gives the reader a deeper understanding of your characters as “people,” making them more realistic. It also allows you to make political commentary on the events in the novel without having the characters act as your political spokespersons. That is irony.

Using Hints for Negative Traits
Irony is also vital when you are creating realistic villains or other unsavory sorts of characters. To avoid creating caricatures, you should only give the reader hints about your character’s negative side (which other characters may misinterpret or fail to notice entirely). Hints is the operative word here. If you make your protagonist a raving lunatic — ranting, screaming, throwing things, shooting animals, kicking holes in the walls — then there’s not much of a secret for the author and reader to share. The quandary is to create an attractive character — attractive in the sense that the reader wants to know more about him — while at the same time demonstrating to the reader that you are not some dim-witted author romanticizing evil.

In addition to making characters more realistic, irony makes fiction more satisfyingly complex because, in effect, it makes the reader a “co-conspirator” with the author and the other characters who are “in the know.” Though irony might seem heavy-handed the first time you try it, remember that the information you’re presenting may, indeed, seem obvious — to you as the author — but it isn’t necessarily obvious to the other characters or to your reader, for that matter. That, in fact, is the very point of irony, and that’s the reason it helps you create human characters.

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Review of Guidelines for Creating Realistic Characters

• Like your characters
• Let them live their own lives
• Know every character’s past
• Give each character both positive and negative traits
• Use hints to show negative traits
• Use unreliability, denial, and positive illusions to create psychological realism and complexity
• Use irony

Liking your characters, allowing them to live their own lives, endowing them with good and bad characteristics, the skillful use of unreliable narrators — these are all valuable tools for creating realistic characters. Observing human nature and becoming conscious of the techniques other skillful writers use will also help you develop your own characters.

Take what you can use, my Lovelies, and leave the rest.

Related Posts

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths about Point of View

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

 

* I do not get any money if you purchase books that I recommend for your development as a writer. (back to post)

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Mastering Fiction and Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded, 15thAnniversary Edition © 2001, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. (Shorter excerpt formerly included in Mastering Point of View: Using POV to Create Conflict, Depth, & Suspense. Story Press: 2001.)

May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written consent of the author or the publisher. Educators and Conference leaders may use materials with attribution to author and copyright information. Please do not support piracy of intellectual property.

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