How to Create Realistic Characters
You pick up the novel that you’re been dying to get to all week. Everything about the book has hooked you from the start. The plot is intriguing, the characters are unique, relatable and quirky. Then, a few chapters in, something terrible happens. One (or more than one) character starts acting outside of what is expected of them.
Don’t you just hate it when this happens? When you’ve spent so much time invested in a story only to have the characters dwindle midway. When I read a story, I can excuse many faults, even some grammatical errors (and yes these do happen in published novels). But, one thing I simply cannot excuse and look past, is when the characters start acting, well, out of character.
Why is it Important?
Whether you want to see it that way or not, your readers form a type of relationship or a bond with your characters. They become invested in the events of the story and start to form their own hopes for how everything is going to play out.
Naturally, whenever someone becomes this invested in something, disappointment can easily ensue.
It’s your job as a writer to keep your characters true to themselves and at the same time take the story in the direction that you want it to go. If these two don’t line up, then you have a serious problem!
How Can a Character Be Unrealistic?
When I talk about a character that is unrealistic, I’m talking about a character that is acting or saying things that don’t match up with that which we have gotten to know them for.
Let’s say your character is this amazing fighting warrior who rages into risky situations without giving it a second thought. She is independent and has always had to fend for herself. And in walks a potential romantic partner. Now all of a sudden, you have your female lead submitting and having the male fighting her battles for her. This goes against all of the character traits that you have meticulously set up in the previous chapters. Does that make sense?
Of course it doesn’t! And yet, we see this happening time and time again in novels nowadays.
If your character is shy and soft-spoken, have her be shy and soft-spoken. If your character is wild and fearless, let her be wild and fearless. Give your characters the freedom to be who they are. Your characters should never go against their very selves.
What about Character Growth?
That’s an excellent question! It’s a natural part of the story and essential for the development of your character to show some sort of growth. Without it, you won’t have a gripping story.
But, just as in real life, no matter how much your character grows as a person, they will never grow themselves into a completely new personality.
The important things you need to consider here is which parts of your character’s personalities are essential to who they are and then which ones aren’t. Which parts of your character need some work or could do with some development?
Let’s take our female character as described above. As we said, she’s this amazing independent woman who is fearless in the face of danger. What could be some of her faults or things that she can work on?
Maybe she struggles to trust people and let them in. This could be a good angle that you can work on especially with the potential love interest. She can slowly start letting him closer as he starts to prove himself as an equally skilled warrior or leader (or whatever makes him unique).
She can then choose to sometimes follow his lead because she trusts him. And maybe you can add a piece of conflict here and there or some passages where their strong opinions clash. This is good for your storyline and good for your character development. You thus have your female lead growing in the sense that she decides to trust someone (which she didn’t do before, i.e. growth) and in the process, she didn’t become weak.
This is a very important factor and I will, therefore, reiterate it. She chose to trust (to grow), but she didn’t lose her own identity in doing so! She didn’t become weak or submissive, she didn’t become a completely different character.
Exceptions to the Rule
As with everything, there are some exceptions applicable here.
If your character is in some sort of oppressive situation where he or she isn’t able to fully be themselves, then it would be sensible and realistic to have them change drastically once their situation changes. If this is the case, you will have your work cut out for you, because you will have to provide sufficient evidence that the character which he or she turns into is actually his or her authentic self.
Timing is extremely important in this and it needs to happen as part of a process. Your oppressed, Cinderella-type lead can’t simply wake up the morning after being saved by the handsome prince as this strong woman who has everything figured out. Because that wouldn’t be realistic! But by all means, have her turn into that woman over time as she has someone genuinely caring about her and as her opinion and overall existence is appreciated more.
So, let’s wrap this up, because honestly I could write about this for pages on end. And I probably will write about this again in the future, since there’s so much that can be said on the subject.
I don’t want you to have a dull, one-dimensional character in your pursuit to make them realistic. So, by all means, have your character change (even if it’s drastic to some extent). But, keep the above in mind when doing this.
Personally, I find it helpful if I continuously ask myself “Does this make sense? Would X do this?”. Doing this will allow you to take a step back and look at your character and their experiences as a whole and to create more authentic scenes.
Have any advice or writing pet peeves that you would like to add? Mention them in the comments below! I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.