What Makes a Realistic Character?

Feb 7, 2014 by

Real people are complicated, that’s why making a character realistic is complicated; but it’s well worth the work because when a character feels real to a reader they care what happens to him, they laugh and cry with him because he starts to feel like a best friend, they can become inspired by him; and that’s what makes a book more than just a book.

 

Students with Question Marks

While making/revising your character there’s a few things you need to make sure they have; I separated these into categories below and to demonstrate them I’m going to create a sample character.

Meet Dan, he’s a middle aged, single, African American cop in New York. It’s good to have a base, you don’t have to start them all with the same details but it is good to have some and to at least know their role in the story.

Good/Bad/Gray

Even the most heroic and the most villainous of people aren’t going to be all good or all bad and neutral people aren’t void of either but have an equal amount of both. They all need to have at least one good quality, one bad and one that could go either way depending on your point of view (what makes one person annoyed with one could be what someone else loves about you.)

For Dan I’m going to make his good quality the fact that he can never turn down someone in trouble, good for a cop; his bad one is his trust issues (now we know why he’s single); although for someone who is put in dangerous situations that might not be a bad trait so I’m going to make his issues really bad, say he can’t even trust the pizza boy, he carries a gun to the door just in case and thoroughly inspects his pizza before taking a bite.

His gray trait is his bluntness, it’s gotten him in a lot of trouble before but it sometimes helps gets the job done and is how he got his best friend, one of the only people he can trust.

I should probably point out that any good trait can become bad taken too far and some bad traits can be useful in the right situation. So don’t worry too much over which qualities are good or bad it’s mostly how you use them.

Fears

Everyone has them which is why they’re important in making you character realistic. They don’t even have to be important to the story just the fact that they exist makes them more relatable; although important fears can be great for the story.

I’m going to give Dan two, one important and one not as much. The first is that because of his trust problems he fears getting close to people, this could be very important for character arcs. The second is arachnophobia, now giant spiders aren’t going to attack New York or anything, I’m not going to be able to use this much, however imagine a tiny spider crawls across his desk and he starts smacking at it with anything in arms reach while some other cops are standing nearby trying to talk about the case. It’s the moments like that that can really get someone to start to like a character.

Opinions

Like fears your character needs them and they don’t have to be important to the story. Just a quick remark about something’s color could help a character seem real.

I’m giving Dan strong opinions on cars and pizza, he often has friendly arguments with the other cops over which kinds are the best and often makes remarks about what kind of car the bad guy is using as the getaway. Not every opinion should be a strong one though so I’m going to make his favorite color red, not to the extent where he wears it all the time just so I know a little more about him, for example, now I know that he prefers red cars. He also likes Iron Man, he doesn’t argue about him being the best superhero but now I know to throw in an occasional reference.

Opinions will fill out as you write, don’t worry about knowing very many at the start just keep an eye out for them.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Greed, wrath, lust, slothfulness, gluttony, pride and envy; the Catholics call them deadly for a reason; because almost everyone can fall to all of them even if it’s not their main problem.

Dan doesn’t have anger problems but one day he was tired and had a bad day at work and came home to find a teen on his lawn throwing out insults so Dan pulled out his gun to scare him away. He never intended to shoot but it’s still something that could get him in trouble and even though he didn’t shoot it was still a form of wrath.

Which is something else to remember, that all of them come out differently for different people and that there are different levels one can fall to; for example anyone can get a greedy or envious impulse but not everyone would actually steal because of it.

Backstory

This is very important because everyone is where they are now because of their past; whether that’s an opportunity, missed opportunity, tragic event or inspiration; and it helps both the writer and the reader understand them.

For Dan I went the tragic route: his best friend in high school ended up in the wrong crowd and wanted Dan’s help with something bad, when Dan refused he got mad (and he did have anger problems) he shot at him; Dan’s older brother showed up just in time to save him but was shot instead. Now I’ve covered his trust issues and why he joined the police force in one swoop.

There’s also backstory for the smaller things, it’s less important but the more you know about your character the better, because if you understand their past you know better how they should react to the present. This is something else that will fill in as you go but always look for opportunities to.

Not all backstory even has to be revealed just as long as you know what you need to; and let tidbits show here and there.

For example there was a hostage situation at a bank led by a woman and Dan said that she reminded him of a woman he met on a vacation to Florida but what he doesn’t tell the other cops (but does tell readers) is that the trip was to Disneyland and the woman was Cruella De Vil. Remember it’s the little things that make characters seem human.

Once They’re Perfect, Un-Perfect Them

This is the hardest to do and something you shouldn’t worry about at first, because to get it right you need to really know you’re character.

So once you’ve clearly defined your character and have them focused like a laser beam, un-focus them just a little, because humans are not so clearly defined. It’s easy to be tired and not say a witty remark you usually would have, or to get distracted and forget to feed the dog you’ve fed everyday for years.

This is something that comes more from experience and knowing your character, and is something you shouldn’t worry about on first drafts; but when revising think about what state of mind your character is in because it won’t always be the same.

One Last Thing

The last thing to remember is that for a character to be real to readers they need to be real to you; so add whatever details and work with them as much as you need to until they’re living breathing human beings.

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