How to Create Realistic Characters

Would you want to follow the story of someone who is as boring as an empty gum wrapper? Would you be emotionally invested if the characters all seem to be the same two-dimensional person? Even if you write a plot-driven book, you need interesting characters that the reader can identify with. Otherwise, all the stuff that happens to them doesn’t matter. It’s easy to put down a book when you don’t have a connection with it. Characters provide that connection. So, how to write realistic characters?

Before I start the actual writing I need to give my characters a few things.

  • a background story (preferably with conflict related to it)
  • a biggest fear (a true hidden fear AND the main fear they tell themselves they have)
  • a desire (a shallow and a deep one)
  • morals related to the desire; how far would they go to get it, where is the line
  • two secrets (at least), one they will eventually share, one they won’t (and that may be revealed, or not
  • a quirk

I write quirky novels, so that last one may not apply to everyone, but even so I recommend it. The quirk doesn’t necessarily have to be humorous; that might not fit your story. However, it can be related to their strengths or weaknesses. Perhaps the clever PI with a drinking problem collects figurines of elves. Or, the thin model who sleeps around has to flip the light switch ten times or the world will end.  When it comes to descriptions I sometimes give them an unusual characteristic as well.

All the things mentioned above will help them drive the plot and respond to other characters. What makes them really come to life for me is when I exaggerate. I love doing that. What I mean by that is that if a character worries a lot, I make them neurotic. If they don’t like dogs, I make them run in the opposite direction as soon as they see one. Even if it is on the other side of the street. Hell, even if the dog drives by in a car. (He’s not doing the actual driving, though.) Nancy, Maggie’s aunt in Prelude to Poison, is quite volatile and loves hitting people with household appliances, preferably her broom. She also has a glass eye and when people ask her about it, she makes up a new gruesome story each time. You can add great bits to the otherwise relatively ‘dry’ scenes this way. No matter what the quirk is.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s very interesting to create opposing desires and morals, so that the relationships between characters also add to realism. Even if the characters are friends, adding conflict, even if it is minor, is an interesting way to provide more details about characters. It’s also realistic that not everybody agrees on everything, even if they are friends. Similarly, it’s interesting to give two enemies something they have in common.

Don’t be afraid to spend time with your characters outside the novel and get to know them. Write an interview with them, write a scene that would never make it into the novel, do whatever you can to get a feel for them and then use that for your story. Add details here and there so that the reader can gradually get to know them as well, as one might a friend. After all, that’s what characters in good books are. Friends.

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Kenneth Lynch

Awesome Migrant; excellent tips!