How to write authentic characters
True confession: I wept myself silly over Beth’s passing in Little Women. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but hey, if you’ve not read the book then stop press: BETH DIES) and oh boy, was I ever a wreck by the end of The Fault in Our Stars.
Do you know what’s so crazy about this? These people NEVER EXISTED. Yes, that’s right – neither Beth nor Augustus were real people. But oh man, how I mourned.
The reason I cared so much about these two (totally imaginary) characters? It’s because, for a time, I believed they were REAL.
They might be fictional, but to me, they felt authentic.
Writing Authentic Characters is IMPORTANT
Character is essential to story. The whole essence of a novel is an individual responding to conflict, so if you want your readers to keep turning the page, they must care about the people in the story. Your readers should be made so anxious by your character’s struggles that they can’t stop reading. They may (if they’re like me) cry if a character dies, and they’ll be triumphant when your character wins through.
1. Genre matters
For some genres, character is integral. If you’re writing a YA, believable, relatable characters are essential, and believe me, you’ll receive scathing reviews if they’re not.
For literary fiction, you may get away without exciting characters, providing the overall theme is interesting, or your prose is particularly elegant, but boy, great characters that pop from the page sure make for an easier read. The Thomas Cromwell character in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light Series is a great case in point: Cromwell is so sinister, complex, and compelling you can’t help but read on.
Picture books may survive without deep characterization. I mean, there aren’t many words in a picture book, right, so you’re probably not going to be able to draft a fully formed individual with all their hopes and dreams – but still, the essence has to be there. Try reading a picture book out loud to a small child, and you’ll get my meaning.
Middle-grade readers love over-the-top characters, the ruder the better. Captain Underpants, anyone?
Roald Dahl was a genius at creating characters. Think James and the Giant Peach. The whole reason we love the story is because:
- we care what happens to poor orphaned James
- the centipede is really funny
- you can hear Taika Waititi reading it (with a host of
friendscelebrities) – okay so that’s not about character. Stop! Actually, it is – it’s the Waititi character that keeps you engaged.
2. Characters don’t have to be imaginary.
Small aside: I met Taika Waititi in an airport lounge. Well, what really happened is that he and I briefly occupied the same table at the same time. That’s what I mean by ‘met’. I looked at him. I smiled. He ignored me. Instead, he wrote busily in a large notebook. (Probably this was the script for an award-winning movie but that doesn’t excuse him, not in my books no sir.)
Anyway, that’s why I’m calling the on-screen Waititi a character. It’s because the fascinating Waititi in the clip above seems very different from the unexciting, occupied Waititi who totally blanked me in an airport lounge.
Taika Waititi blanked me.
3. What makes a great character?
Great characters, those that live apart from the page, have one consistent feature: They are flawed.
- This can be physical: Harry Potter has a scar and glasses. Charlie, of chocolate factory fame, is small and weedy. In Little Woman, Beth is an invalid. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg wears glasses and braces. Pippi Longstocking is amazingly strong.
- The flaw can be psychological: Mr. Krupp, Captain Underpants’ alter ego, is mean. Hermione is bossy.
- A flaw can be societal: In A Room with A View, Lucy Honeychurch is so scared of what people may say that she won’t allow herself to fall in love. In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian Flyte is gay, in a world where homosexuality is illegal.
Flaws make for a much more interesting character than bland perfection. Plus, they provide opportunity: help your character to overcome their flaw, and bang! you have a plot.
4. Main Character vs Side-Kick
I’ve always preferred the Weasley’s to Harry Potter. To me, young Harry is a bit boring; a bit too … good. This is one problem with characters: if you’re writing a hero with a journey, make sure the villains and/or sidekicks don’t take over. Sometimes they can, just because they’re a chance to break free from the heroic mold. So here’s a tip: make your hero flawed as well as heroic.
In a novel, your character is defined by your choice of words. Make these consistent. And as you’re writing a novel (as opposed to a screenplay) you’ll need to consider language for the character’s interior landscape as well as their dialogue.
If your child is a six-year-old boy, they must speak like a six-year-old. If they’re an academic, they may use academic language. Characters with limited learning will not use long words, but erudite characters, on the other hand, will.
Your character will use language consistent with their profession, and they’ll use terms in a way that shows a professional understanding. If your character is a doctor, they probably won’t have someone breaking a leg: they’ll refer to the bone and the type of fracture. Mentally, they’ll think about complications, and they’ll use medical terms. If your character is a meatpacker, they’ll think about knives and mesh in a very different way to a non-meat worker. A composer may appreciate sounds differently to you (if you’re not a composer) and an artist will notice the way light falls, color, and the relationships between spaces.
Your character is defined by your choice of words
If you don’t share the same profession as your character, talk with people who do. Take a mental note of how they speak, and if you can, (and they’ll allow it), make recordings of your conversation.
If your character’s first language is not English, structure your sentence as if they were mentally translating from their own language. This may mean their internal monologues sound different to an English speaker. If you, as the author, don’t speak Chinese or French or whatever language your character speaks, then listen to people who do. This sounds easy, but I find it really, really hard. However, once you get it right, your character will truly jump from the page.
6. Teens are special
Writing teen characters can be tricky, as teens adopt slang and use it ALL. THE. TIME. Unfortunately, nothing dates a story as fast as slang (except for technology). If you’re writing in the present day then this can be tricky, as your teens must have some slang to be authentic, but not too much or you run the risk of dating your story in place and time. Unless you want to do strongly link your tale to a particular place and time of course, in which case, make the slang part of the story, (but make sure you get it right).
If you’re writing a fantasy, science fiction or historical YA then teen-speak is a bit easier, as it’s your world, your way. You can choose which words you’ll adopt or adapt for your story, as long as you’re consistent.
Alternatively, you can invent your own slang (as Burgess did in Clockwork Orange). Weirdly, sometimes slang words coined for novels have become real: it was William Gibson who first referenced cyberspace as the matrix (in The Neuromancer, published in 1984), and we can thank another 1984 for the terms thoughtcrime and doublethink.
To develop a character, you need to understand what makes them tick. What do they really, really want? why? what was their childhood like? who were their parents? What house did they live in? You won’t need to answer all these questions unless they’re relevant to the story, but if your character is going to be a real, authentic character they must have had a past. They must be complex, because face it, people are complicated.
Here’s a tip: think of someone with a strong personality. An irritating, or eccentric, or just plain mental individual. You must know at least one person like this. If you work in a big workplace, like a hospital, you’ll be golden, because institutions like universities, hospitals and big multinationals seem to attract
the mad strong personalities.
Can you tap into these characteristics? What makes them so unusual? How do they talk, how do respond to questions? Watch people, especially in groups, as it’s always intriguing to see how someone responds one on one vs in a collective. That’s where you can spot the internal tensions in a personality.
8. Check out the physical
Take notice of small physical characteristics. People move constantly, even when they’re supposedly still. They cross their arms, their legs, jiggle their foot. Some folk wave their arms excitedly when speaking, others barely move their lips. A teacher at my school stalked like a praying mantis, while another one barreled along, head down, and barely made eye contact. All these mannerisms can be reflected in your story.
Hobbies and habits help to build depth. You can offset a supposedly bland personality by providing them with a very bizarre hobby, or alternatively, you can tone down an over-the-top individual by providing them with an interest in something that most people consider banal. My favorite juxtaposition of this is The Accountant where Ben Affleck’s character, a small-town accountant (a supposedly boring profession), has a side-gig as a hitman.
If you don’t know anyone strange, mental or weird, take a trip around a university campus. 🙂 And remember, you can’t make up anything as strange as real life. Because in real life, people are as weird as fu*k.
9. Techniques to Develop Character
A. Name your character
This is harder than it sounds. Names are tricky. Some people use name generators, like a phone book or the newspaper. I use a phone list from work and mix and match first names against surnames. This works okay, but can limit you to a particular demographic.
Some writers use or adapt names from history or mythology; others invent names using alliterative syllables that provide an insight into the character’s personality. Dickens was an expert at this – just think of Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Fagin, and Tiny Tim.
I like to draw my main characters, especially my villains. Villains are complex by nature, so perhaps that’s why I like drawing them! (I’m a terrible artist, by the way – but that doesn’t matter, I’m not going to share my images). However, if you hate drawing, you can always find photos.
Some people paste images into scrapbooks. Some keep a scrapbook for each character while others use software like plottr or Scrivener to hold a digital version.
Don’t forget the other senses: what do they smell like? How do they laugh? What does their voice sound like? Do they speak in an accent, or have a lisp? Are their hands rough or smooth?
Personally, I find the process of putting pen to paper helps to cement the image of my character in my brain, so helps build a more three-dimensional personality, and scrapbooking sounds suspiciously like procrastination, but hey, each to his/her own, right?
C. What is your character’s background?
Everyone has a history. The Māori tradition of Pepeha (introducing oneself in a set structure) is very relevant here. To Māori, a person is anchored by their relationship to their land, their family, and their ancestors. Your characters will have their own pepeha. Where were they born? What mountains, rivers or lakes do they relate to? Where did their ancestors come from? Who was their father, who was their mother?
You can find out more information on pepeha here. (As I’m not Māori, please don’t take this as cultural guidance, I’m just saying the pepeha structure is really great at providing an overview of where a person comes from.)
Some people actually talk out loud like their character, introducing themselves, saying what their hobbies are, their religion, their favorite color, etc. This has always felt weird to me, so I don’t do it, but whatever works.
D. What is your character’s pain?
Everyone has history. Everyone is rejected, falls in love, suffers loss.
What events shaped your character = what created the flaw?
One of the best ways to understand your character is to write the wound-inducing scene. (Be warned: this can be gut-wrenching because your character will get hurt.)
10. Finally – if in doubt,
The oldest technique of all: copy!
Just be really careful if you’re basing a character on a real person. Partly, because of that little disclaimer that says ‘all events and persons in this book are imaginary but partly because you don’t want to get sued. 🙂
But hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
So, what are you waiting for? Time to develop your own imaginary people.