You see your character for the first time. Chances are, he or she is standing across a foggy room or has their back to you. You can’t quite see the fine details. You know nothing of their personality. So you move closer. It is from their looks (true to life) that you make the first assumptions about their personality.
Elegantly styled dark hair. Piercing blue eyes. Hand on hip. Very high brow. So now you know a little more about them based on stereotypes. It’s somewhere to start.
Try to talk to them. Hearing their voice, you’ll be able to tweak the stereotype. Maybe this character was born into a wealthy family and uses her money and power to end animal cruelty. Or she’s new to money and trying overly hard to act the part. Or maybe she’s wealthy by her own right and every bit the wicked witch. Why? What happened to her? Dig deeper past the first impression. The layers of personality may surprise you.
Now it’s time to play. Put them in a scene and see what they’ll do. See what they’ll tolerate. Push the limits and see where they draw the line. I promise, they’ll let you know. If you try to guide them in a direction they don’t want, either the writing will be flat and unbelievable or they will go on strike and leave you staring at a blank page.
I have always maintained that writer’s block is nothing but the author being stubborn, refusing to let the characters lead because he/she knows the story must go this way. It’s in the outline, darn it!
Guess what, pumpkin? Maybe your outline is wrong. Maybe, just maybe, the characters you birthed and named and groomed have grown up and know better than you.
If you get stuck, get out of the driver's seat. You don’t belong there in the first place. Your block should resolve quickly if you are in the backseat and go along for the ride.
I firmly believe creating a believable character is first creating and then listening.
So you’ve created a character and your ears are wide open. Now what?
Characters who feel real to a reader is what you’re striving for.
At the least, you want the reader to feel like they know them. Even better if that character feels like someone they might know in real life. Even better than that, if the character feels so real to the reader that the lines of reality are blurred and the thoughts and memories of the character’s journey mingle with thoughts and memories of their first love or their favorite place.
But how do you make them real?
Letting characters guide the story will keep it authentic. Allow them to work within the confines of their personality. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t change and evolve. They must.
However, that process must happen slowly. Peggy doesn’t lose her beloved pet on page eight and by page ten is watching the sunset with a new pet and all is fine and dandy in her world.
Pace evolution realistically.
Another way to authenticate characters is to find negative traits and challenge them with change.
Find positive traits and challenge them with trials.
Change is inevitable, and trials are something every reader can relate to.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), creating characters isn’t that different from creating children. Only you’re by yourself. You most likely have music on and there’s almost always wine involved. And then, eureka! A character is conceived and the great part is, you don’t have to buy anyone breakfast or go through labor.
With a child, you give them a small piece of your DNA and then they are born. They get a name and grow up to be independent with their own unique personality, quirks, and obsessions.
Just like your characters.
You are not your characters. But they are all a little sliver of you. Noodle that for a moment.
When I first realized this, I had to test it. I didn’t really want to believe it because I’ve created some awful characters.
I went through a list of all my published characters and found a link between myself and them.
Here are a few examples:
Jonathan: I’m a numbers nut. I must own my own business. I love being a workaholic.
Ava: I’m painfully shy.
Arianna: Though I don’t like to be around a lot of people, I do check the mirror for new wrinkles and come up with an action plan to fight them. I will color my hair until the day I die.
Caleb: I love land, animals, and the simple life.
Maura: I can be hard when it comes to advice. I am a suck-it-up-buttercup-and-work-harder kind of person. Not that I’m unkind—I just don’t tolerate a lot of crying in your beer. You have ten minutes to moan “poor me” and then get back up and keep trying.
Just for fun, I looked at Victor. Certainly I couldn’t share any trait with that jerk! But I do.
When wronged, I can hold a grudge for a long time.
The point is when you give your characters (willingly or subconsciously) a trait of yours, you will stay connected to them. It serves as an anchor. It’s less likely you’ll make them fly off in some crazy out-of-character direction just for dramatics or to force the story along.
On the flip side, I went through all my projects that weren’t going anywhere. I have about a dozen such partial novels. Looking at each character, I noticed I didn’t share anything with them. I couldn’t relate to them. We couldn’t talk. They were flat. Boring. It was like stunted growth. Or failure to launch.
That one small thing you share with your character—obsession over wrinkles, obsession over numbers—whatever it is connects you like an umbilical cord and keeps you writing within the confines of their personality. Which hopefully translates to the reader as authentic. Hence, making them real.
Challenge yourself to sit across from every character you have and find that little sliver of yourself. If you’re stuck on a project, consider giving them a bit of your DNA and see if that will spark them to life.
Cue the music, pour the wine. It’ll be good for you both.
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