Tuesday, August 2, 2011

I want to be a real boy (or girl)

Ever opened a book and read about a character that you felt like you knew by the end? Ever fallen in love with one? Have you ever closed a booked (or muddled through with a determination greater than mine) because the characters seemed flat, unrealistic, or didn’t make any sense? As a writer, we want to be remembered for the first, and not the second.

So what exactly is it that seperates the two?

Personality: this is obvious, but sometimes it seems to be shoved aside when another character or a complicated plot is introduced. Every character that has a line of dialogue should have a personality. You don’t need to figure out every last detail of the guard’s life if he’s only in one paragraph, but do decide if he’s a typical guard (serious, commanding, intimidating) or if there is anything different. Different is often more interesting. People are more likely to remember the frail, worried guard on his first day than they are the “cut-out” of normality.

Motivation: What is it that is motivating your character? What are his or her goals? They should have two: one, which is tangible and they are aware of (ie: destroy a ring, save the cheerleader, or win back the girl of their dreams) and one in that lies deep in their subconscious, which you as the author are away of. This second is much larger, and usually is to be loved, to be feared, to be accepted, to be admired, or something very similar. This should never be stated explicitly, but the readers should be able to figure it out by the end of the book (which category does Bella fall into? Harry Potter?)

Self-image: Often times, the most interesting stories are when a characters self image is quite different from how they are perceived. They see themselves as worthless and cowardly, while their actions show they are actually quite brave, but perhaps not in a way they don’t think of as typical bravery. Or, they see themselves as heroic and inspiring, but are crushed when they realize everyone else sees them as self-centered and cocky.

Background: it’s good to have at least a general idea for a character’s background, even if it’s never mentioned. Were they properly educated? Do they have a strong accent?  Are they close to their family? These factors are going to change the way they behave and influence the other characters perceive them. The larger role the character will play, they more you should spend time creating their background.

Interaction with others: this is the most important part. It could really have a whole post to itself. A character can be described as funny, but no one is going to buy it unless they see for themselves. “Funny” is such a generic word, because everyone has a different sense of humor.

Relatable: This doesn’t mean all young adult books have to take place on earth in a suburban high school, but it does mean it has to be relatable to people in that setting. Loss of innocence, witnessing injustice, introduced to new situations, and becoming overwhelmed with emotions are all trials we face as young adults, and are therefore often explored in the YA genre.

Simply put, people want to read stories about people (or at least, characters with human qualities) so character development is a crucial part of the writing process.

What are some of the “most real” fictional characters you’ve been introduced to? What do you think it was that made them so real?


  1. Well I have to say Harry Potter. Actually all of the characters in the series because who doesn't want to be best friends with Hermione??

    I think it was the interaction between them but also their flaws. Hermione was sort of a know it all, Ron could be really jealous, and Harry could be a little self-absorbed. I feel so guilty saying those things.lol It rocked the story though.

  2. I always have fun when a character is anti-cliche. You know, the smuggler who's actually shy and sweet hearted, that sort of thing. :) But it's not necessary - Whiskeyjack is a new favorite character of mine, and he's a soldier with a heart of gold buried under years of jaded crustiness. Fairly typical, yet Erickson brings him to life with such vivacity it's incredible. I'm still not sure how he does it. :)

  3. I've had several, always YA, where they jump off the page, you know? I <3 that. Great post!

    From your newest follower :)

  4. Martha- Yes! The Harry Potter crowd would be great to hang out with. I'd just feel so inadequate around them considering all they had achieved by the time they were 18... Oh, you defeated the most evil wizard of all time? I, um, passed chemistry.

    Bethany-Anti-cliche characters are great- I almost always love them too! They're a nice break from cookie-cutter characters :P

    Kelley- Thanks (both for posting and for following) I'm always looking for characters that "jump of the page" (great way of putting it) and I have found a surprisingly good amount in YA literature. I'll hopefully see you around :)