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Capturing Real: Beyond Two-Dimensional Character Building

[1]If you want your characters to seem like real people, they must present on the page as more than tokens that run through a plot point obstacle course. You already know, I’m sure, that real people are complex. They don’t always know who they are or what they want or why they behave as they do. But you, as a creator, must know these things about your characters.

Allow them to reveal their story as you write; don’t presume to know it all.

Knowing a character in full form before you write your first draft may not be possible, or even ideal. You may want to begin with a moderate understanding of your character—based on a well-considered backstory, and how that intersects with your story’s plot—and then allow them to evolve as you work. There’s a simple truth at play here: When you begin to tell a tale, you may have a skeleton plot worked out on paper or in your head, but there’s no way you have envisioned every turn your story will take, even if you’re a master plotter. And it’s the intersection of your character with these turns that reveal who they are. This is why you can’t fully understand them until you allow them to interact with these moments as you write them.

But what if the character-connection evades you? Is there anything you can do to help things along?

Let them loose on the page. Not every character is going to flesh out easily. For example, if you have a character who is Pollyanna-sunny or even boring, you may have to force them into a corner and see how they react; write that as an exercise, and force them to reveal the breadth of their territory to you in that way.

Try unconventional measures if it means getting inside the heads of quirky or difficult people. I had a quirky character in my second novel who came alive for me in footnotes that I never showed anyone. Her sister on the other hand—a jaded young woman who felt trapped in a life she couldn’t imagine evolving from—spoke to me in haikus: carefully composed with very few words. It was only through these measures that each sister revealed something that I would not otherwise have known.

Once, with a character holding a lot of anger, I let her vent via pages of rants that weren’t meant for the book. I needed to listen to them, though, in order to learn how she viewed her world. (Anger, I find, is often the lingering bruise behind a character’s greatest pain.)

Let them loose off the page, too. In The Velveteen Rabbit, the rabbit had to be let loose in order to shed the label of ‘toy’; only then did he become real. Your characters may become real for you when you let go the label of ‘character’—when you imagine them untethered from your specific plot. Think outside the confines of your story and they may unspool for you.

Brunonia Barry famously inhabits the mindsets of her characters while she’s drafting—eating, traveling, and speaking with others as those characters, sometimes for days at a time—in order to grow a better understanding of who they are. It’s through this exercise that she’s able to authentically channel them onto the page, pulling forward her experience of being them, imagining their thoughts, and walking in their shoes.

This isn’t always easy. In fact, if you hit a roadblock it may be because you’re resisting touching something about a character that hits too close to home. This happened to me while writing a depressed character in my second book. This character’s darkness was something I worked hard to avoid. But once I recognized my own avoidance, I carefully dipped into memory and let it intersect with her story: How would I feel if X? How would Y change everything? How was her response distinct from what mine might be, and why? That last part was an important safety net: Though I might share emotions with a character, I would never share an intersection between those emotions and that character’s backstory or forestory. But I could still deliver this character a huge dose of what I did know, and honor her with that much realism.

Adapt with every draft.

I had an illuminating experience with my editor while working through a draft of my second novel, involving the telling of a story within my story. The ‘embedded story’ just wasn’t gelling. I think my editor finally admitted, ‘I don’t really care about this character.’ Huh, I thought – neither do I. And, yes, that’s bad. Not every character you create is going to be likable, but I didn’t even care how readers might perceive this character beyond noting her similarities to a character in the alpha story. And because this side venture was also pulling focus from that alpha story, we decided to let it go entirely. Bye, bye, apathy.

It isn’t always as easy as nixing a troubled character-author relationship, of course. I recently worked with an author on a protagonist who felt a little untouchable, and recalled my experience with my own troubled character. I brought it back to my editor’s point, and gave it a spin: ‘Do you like this protagonist?’ I asked my client. He said that he did but when pressed couldn’t say why. That gave us a huge clue. There was some resistance there, which my client quickly identified—this duty-bound character was entirely defined by duty. As before, we let him loose on the page, learned more about who he was sans duty, and now he’s three-dimensional in all of his many, complex shades of gray.

Don’t forget the small stuff.

My son is in the Cinematic Arts program at USC, and we’ve occasionally had the opportunity to live vicariously through his experience. For instance, he’s given us the chance to view some auditions by aspiring actors trying to land a role that he’s been tasked to cast. It’s both great fun to see these auditions and surprisingly illuminating. You can tell, almost from first lines, who’s ‘got it’ and who – well – has a ways to go. We’ve talked about that, at length—what it means to be a good actor. We’ve speculated that a really good actor is able to deliver unscripted micro-expressions, reflecting the thoughts that person would have if they were living life in their shoes, in truth. A lot might go into that thought trajectory, or not. It might be obvious to go from ‘Sure, I’d like to go with you’ to ‘I’ll drive.’ Or it might not. It might be that person is thinking, ‘But I’m supposed to meet Thomas, so how am I going to juggle this?’ or ‘This will give me the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to spike your drink and dump your body in the river’ or ‘We’re going to pull off into that overgrown baseball field, aren’t we, just like old times? Good thing I’m wearing the black lace today.’

Actors who are aware of the power of micro-expressions, and know how to pull them off using facial expressions and body language, are in possession of a mighty skill. We writers need to know how to convey these things, too, if we’re to create characters who’ve ‘got it’ – who are believable, three-dimensional stand-ins for human beings. This starts with knowing what your pretend people are thinking, beat for beat, considering if those thoughts should be expressed internally or verbally or through a tell, or withheld, even though you know what they are. Put another way: It’s not always what they say, it’s what they mean.

Characters often become the reason we write, and that’s a good thing. Your need to tell a character’s story well, and your dedication to that end, is what will ultimately make them read as real.

What’s your experience with turning difficult characters into believable beings? Share your stories, and any tricks and tips you’ve used to good effect, in comments. 

About Therese Walsh [2]

Therese Walsh (she/her) co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [3], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [4] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [5], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [6] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [7] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [8]). Learn more on her website [9].