Several of my students have asked for some writing tips on making characters real in their fiction. They want readers to connect to their story people, and love them. They know that when readers connect to their characters, they’ll sell more books.
Of course, fictional characters aren’t real. In your novels and short stories, your characters are motivated to do things for clear reasons. In our real life, motivation is much less clear and sometimes non-existent.
Because their characters need to act logically (logically that is, to that character), writers create bios for their characters. With one eye to a fictional character’s bio, they expect the character to spring to life.
If you’re writing character bios, and your characters feel like cardboard dress-up dolls rather than real people, the clue is the word “feel”.
We’ve often discussed emotion in fiction, and as you might expect, emotion comes into play when you want to create characters readers love — characters who feel real to readers.
Writing tips: your characters are real, because the emotion is real
You’re writing a novel about aliens who live on a planet far, far away. Or you’re writing a novel about a neurosurgeon, who has a gambling problem. Or you’re writing a novel about eagles, from the point of view of a young eagle who’s been raised in captivity, and is now in the wild.
All those characters are you. No matter who your characters are in your fiction, and no matter how different they are, they’re you. Their emotional reactions are yours. No matter how old or young you are, you’ve experienced human emotions. Your emotions connect you to your characters. And then they connect your readers to your characters.
So, that’s our first tip.
1. Follow the emotion: experience the emotion and write the character
Aim to link your characters’ experiences to your own in some way, no matter how different the experiences. Aim to link the emotions too. Then your characters will feel real to you, and to readers. You’re revealing truth, by writing a pack of lies, if you like.
The connection between characters who are completely different from you, and from your readers, is always the emotion.
Think about characters like Huck Finn, and Scarlett O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bennett. Jane Austen has been dead for almost two centuries, and yet, at the end of Pride and Prejudice, you know Elizabeth Bennett, because you’ve felt what she feels.
2. Shock and surprise: love unpredictability in your characters
Characters who’ve become real to you will react unpredictably. You’ll find yourself shocked by a character’s actions. This is a good thing. If you’re someone who adores plotting, it’s time to revamp your plot.
BIG TIP: if you’re big on plotting, never think that something’s wrong because your character’s taken charge. Allow it. You might not know where something’s going, but that’s OK. Surprises are a good thing. 🙂 Readers love them.
Sadly, you can’t engineer surprises. They just happen. However, if you focus on feeling the emotions that you think a character would feel, by dredging up the emotion from your own experiences, your characters will surprise you.
3. From acquaintances to friends: think about your characters
I like to reread my current novel before I go to sleep. When I remember to do this, my writing flows more easily the next day. I also like to think about my characters as I go through my days.
When I manage to make my characters a part of my life by musing on them, my characters become more real to me. They’re moving from acquaintances, to friends, as I (and eventually readers) learn more about them.
So think about your characters when you’re not working on your novel.
4. Use your revision drafts to reveal more about your characters
If you’ve been living with your characters, and have written your first draft quickly, you now know your story. In your revision drafts, get to know your characters. Allow them to reveal themselves to you — they will, if you watch for opportunities to allow them to explain themselves.
When a character makes a statement in a scene, ask the character why. Ask questions like: why did you say that? Why are you doing this? What are you feeling now?
And if a character wants to do something — let him. 🙂
Characters sell your novels and short stories
All fiction starts and ends with characters. Your plot may be wonderful, but if no one cares about your characters, your books won’t sell. On the other hand, if you write amazing characters, each of your novels will sell the others.
Connect to the emotion in your stories always. Your characters will come alive. You’ll have more fun writing, as well as selling more.
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