Writing Realistic Characters
Your characters drive the plot, complicate storylines, and often decide their own path through your novel. As a writer, your job is to make them behave and react as realistically possible to keep readers invested, and in love with your characters’ fictional lives. Books on craft are helpful, but books on psychology can show you ways to develop their inner lives and let their complex emotional layers bubble up throughout the story.
Peeling Back The Layers
We’re all a collection of layers made up of personal history, family, emotions, and unique experiences. If characters are developed with just one or two of these layers, then we miss the opportunity to make them feel real for readers.
I recently discovered this video which uses forced perspective to illustrate the difference between assumption and reality. This led me to author and psychologist Richard Wiseman. His book Did You Spot The Gorilla? also talks about perception. I’ll let you read the book description yourself and instead focus on how I relate this to writing.
How often are you so focused on getting your plot moving, and getting your characters from point A to point B that you miss opportunities to show character depth? This isn’t a wordy side trip for the sake of showing the character in gratuitous situations. This is where their strengths, fears, and convictions are tested and they are forced to make decisions that impact your plot. Over the course of a novel or series, readers will begin to expect reactions based on how the character behaved at earlier points in the story. The character can still do the unexpected, but be sure there is something in their knowledge or background that supports it. Previous experiences color how we act and react, and the same is true for fictional characters.
You can also look at this as an opportunity to develop a subplot—you know the other problem your protagonist has to figure out—that parallels the main theme. No one has a single focus in life. Fleshing out the inner dialogue Characters also have inner dialogue and multiple tasks to juggle.
Understanding why we behave the way we do, and what motivates us can be helpful in creating characters who move the plot forward using a fully developed personality. In 59 Seconds, Wiseman talks about practical phycology we can use to improve our lives. I see this as a gold mine for character behavior and aligning their actions with their motives.
Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain blows the lid off the quiet type and shows how rich their inner thoughts are as they process and speed along in their train of thoughts before offering their spoken opinion. Do you have a meek side character? What’s brewing under their quiet demeanor and how can that add texture to your story? No one is quite what they seem to the outside world.
Rethink Your Character Profile
It’s time to pull out your character profiles and add much more than physical traits and hobbies. What is motivating them to take action or to hesitate? Is there an experience in their past that they just can move beyond? Is there a deeply painful event that clouds their reason? Conversely, it could be their lack of a certain type of experience that impact decision. Do this extensively for your larger character, and also to some degree for minor players, and refer back whenever you are in a quandary of what they would do in a situation.
If you liked Richard Wiseman’s video, check out his books below. Both are quick reads and might even impact how you spend your day. Susan Cain’s Quiet gives a scientific and psychological look at what makes up our personalities, introvert and extrovert.
Click to read full synopsis and reviews on Amazon.