So how do I write characters? Since I suppose that I’m good at it, well at least SkullJuggler says so and who am I to debate someone so wise? Check out her blog entry here. Essentially I write characters that I want to read about. Characters that I care about. All writers do on some level. After all if you look at Bella from Twilightor even Anita Blake from Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, they have often been accused of being Mary Sues. You could say that, yeah they are unique in some way, but to many people they’re just an echo of the author's wish fulfillment. I guess any characters is but the trick is to move beyond echoes into actual living breathing character so that you can feel the throb of their pulse through the pages and hear the brush of their breath as their dialogue whispers in your imagination.
Since this is a joint blog, I will move off of Skulljuggler’s point, (or maybe she moves off of mine. With the magic of the internet you’ll never know. Mwa ha) You have to make the characters real. Well so how do you do that? Do you rip personalities right from the headlines, so to speak, of your friends or family? Do you spend hours reading books on psychology painstakingly trying to reconstruct the perfect psyche? Well, you can do all that. Everyone has their own methods. Not one of them is perfectly right. For realism its important to remember a few basic things.
Firstly, a character, like a real person, does not exist in a single point in time. What I mean is that a character has a history, a past which has shaped him or her to what they are when the story begins. All these events, both significant moments and tragic back stories need to be threaded into everything the character does, part of their every day makeup and how they look at the world.
Does this mean that the character should use twenty pages to think about how they lost their mother? No. Okay, can they talk about it to another? No that’s still cheating. I mean, take a look at any stranger on the street and can you tell they lost their mother just by looking at them? In the first ten seconds of meeting will they tell you? Likely not. However, if you saw him watching a mother and child, turning the channel when a particularly poignant commercial with a mother came on, or even something as simple as being uncomfortable around women of a certain age… you might get some hints and good fiction is all about hints. Good fiction, sometimes, is letting the readers draw their own conclusions rather than hammering them n the head with them.
Another thing to remember about realism is that no man is an island, or woman or werewolf or two headed alien president of the cosmos. Even if the character is floating alone in the depths of the sea, there will still be people in the past that have connected with them. Most characters are not in the sea though. Most characters interact with others. How your main character thinks and treats those others can tell a lot about your main character. Going with the angle that he lost his mother, maybe he’s fine around authority figures but he’s stiff and uncomfortable around doctors, maybe the medicinal smell about them makes him nauseous. Use this. Your character should not react to everyone the same way, or react to them solely on gender lines or good/evil lines.
Finally, no one is perfect and you shouldn’t let your character be either. It’s already been covered to let them have some flaws but giving a character flaws can be a dangerous business. You can very easily say, yeah you think my character is perfect BUT she bites her nails OR she goes into a psychotic rage whenever there are certain tunes whistled (though actually that might not be a bad idea using themes of control and lack thereof and how she feels after the bloody massacre…well…never mind…) A flaw has to effect a character in a negative way. Let me repeat. It has to effect the character. For instance, if a character is afraid of something like, trains, but there are no trains anywhere in the story, not even in the character's head, it is not a viable flaw. Characters must live with their flaws, rise above them or not it’s up to you but it’s important that they impact the character in some way.
Two more points.
Firstly, Socrates said that: “an unexamined life is not worth living.” In order to create realistic characters is to realize the realism in yourself. To know why you do what you do. What are writers, after all, but studiers of human (or alien or vampire or magic talking dog) nature under varying conditions? So a great way to start creating characters that leap off the page is to look at what characters do it for you. Take your favorite character from any kind of media and examine them on two levels. First, what do they make you feel? Why do you like them so much? Is it because of who they are? What they represent? What they look like even? The second step is to read analytically. How did the author put this character together? How did the author weave their back story? How does the character interact with others? How do others interact with the character?
Last, but most important, write the character that is burning in your heart. The character that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you want to throw yourself into your narrative so you can sit beside them and talk for hours. Don’t worry if the character is too flawed for a hero or too good for a villain. Don’t worry if the character seems too childish for a woman of thirty or too wise for a girl of five. Will everyone love it? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they will years from now. Maybe you won’t even like them the next go through. It doesn’t matter. If your character is vastly unloved, at least you had the experience of laughing and crying and talking and spending time with them. And who knows? You could have the next Harry Potter or even, yes, Bella, that sets the world on fire.