A guide on how to write authentic fictional characters
Let’s face it, perfect characters are stale and boring. A truly relatable character should be flawed, with a need to grow and improve as the story evolves. Every important character you write should be original and unique. However, too many quirks can overcomplicate them and cause the reader to lose interest. That’s why your characters must be interesting and realistic if you hope to keep the reader’s attention.
This in itself is a challenge, but vital for any work of fiction. A well-developed character will keep the reader invested, and leave them wanting more. At the same time, if you understand your characters motivations and personality, their course of action within the story will become far more clear to you as a writer. Instead of railroading your characters to fit the story, the story should evolve around the characters that populate it. After all, having your hero act out of character in order to reach the next plot point will make them lose all credibility.
So, how do we create strong and believable characters?
They should have a unique voice
You should be able to tell which character is taking without the need for dialogue markers. Obviously, this won’t apply to everything they say, but overall, their voices should be different. For example, your villain won’t have the same motivations and beliefs as your hero, and this should be reflected in their speech.
Not only that: they were no doubt raised differently; they might have grown up in different cities or countries; their personal experiences in life will be different; their social circles will vary; and their sense of humour will be different. So, with all of this in mind, when they converse, they should sound like completely different people.
Their motivations should be clear
What motivates your characters is quintessential to the overall story. Whether it be the need to survive, the quest for love, or the seeking of revenge, your character’s motivation should be clear to the reader, or at the very least, to you as the writer.
Motivations make it easier to understand each character’s actions. They also allow you to drive their actions forward with a sense of believability and realism. Now, you don’t have to worry about every single background character but any character, no matter how villainous, should have clearly defined reasons as to why they act the way they do.
Every person has needs, so in order to write believable characters, so too must they. These range from basic needs such as food, water, sleep, and shelter, to their psychological needs such as love, acceptance, self-esteem, and so on. Then there is the need for self-fulfilment, which encompasses everything from their want to prove themselves, to the attainment of their full potential.
For example, a detective trying to solve a murder would have:
Basic needs: to stop the killer before they become the next victim.
Psychological needs: to stop the killer for their own sense of justice.
Self-fulfilment: to prove themselves to their colleagues and the public.
The reader should relate to them
This applies to the character AND the character’s arc. If you want your reader to fall in love, or despise a certain character, then they will have to grow and develop alongside the story. This growth can’t just be any old thing, however.
Realism and believability are key. If your protagonist suffers a loss, they should act and change accordingly. Say for example their wife and three children die, they wouldn’t turn up to work the next day as if nothing happened. Well, not unless they’re Christian Longo. If their actions aren’t believable then the reader won’t become invested in their story.
The best way to decide what logical (or illogical) action your character will take in any given situation is to tackle the situation using the motivations that drive them. Going back to Christopher Longo, he wanted to be proven innocent of the murders of his entire family so he went to work the next day as if nothing had happened. So, even though the actions of a murderer are not relatable, we can understand why he did what he did after their deaths, which makes his story relatable.
When a character’s motivations are established, we can understand their actions. This allows us to understand why they do what they do, and ultimately, relate to their story because we could see ourselves acting similarily if we were in their shoes.
They should appear human
One sure fire way to achieve this is to give them common characteristics held by real people. Doing so not only adds to the characters relatability, but it will make them unique and memorable when compared to other fictional characters. Just be careful not to turn them into a cartoon stereotype.
Humans are complex and often contradictory creatures, and your characters should be too but when it comes to crafting the perfect fictional character, less is more.
Let’s face it, if your character: bites their nails due to stress; twirls their hair when they fancy someone; taps their foot when they’re waiting; smokes only with their left hand; walks with a limp; bites their toenails; tells rubbish jokes; and dyes their hair when they feel out of control, then they have far too much going on.
A real person might do all of these things, but if it isn’t relevant to the story and doesn’t add any extra depth or realism to the story, then it becomes irrelevant. Don’t describe your character as funny if they aren’t going to tell any jokes.
They should have well-defined flaws
Flaws are an important part of every character. If your protagonist is the perfect cardboard cutout of a hero, then the reader won’t be drawn to their story. A character that repeatedly fails is far more interesting than one that always succeeds.
So, how can we create realistic flaws? Well, one way is to look into their past for any trauma or event that might make them fear something. If they are scared, they are more likely to put off doing what needs to be done because of it. Another aspect to focus on is what makes them angry? Does this anger create any prejudices within them? If they were Northern Irish Protestant, they would naturally have a prejudice towards Northern Irish Catholics. Or alternatively, they could also have an overly strong positive personality trait that would become a flaw given the right circumstances.
All of these flaws will allow you to create an extra layer of drama within your story and your readers will thank you for it. No matter what flaws your character has, they should be forced to face them at some point during the story. Having them do so is a great way to demonstrate how they’ve grown. Especially if they were defeated by their flaw the first time but managed to overcome it later on.
Originally published at www.cult-fiction.net on February 23, 2019.