1st Drafts / Writing

How to Make Your Characters Realistic

If you’re new to “Summer’s Ultimate Novel,” click here to read the first post (listing ideas in a notebook), here to read the second (choosing the right idea), here to read the third (themes and one-line synopsis of your novel), here to read the fourth (one-paragraph synopsis), or here to read the fifth (research and settings). Whew!

How goes the research? Any luck choosing your setting? Keep reading and researching—you’re doing great!

Today we start on my favorite part of novel-writing:  the characters. If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know that I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories. If we don’t care about the main character, why would we care about the plot? When the character’s values are conflicted and she has to choose between two things she cares about, we must sympathize with her to be invested in the story. We need a likable but flawed character with a noble cause.

Everyday life has conflict—things that stand in our way—and fiction is brimming with it. An easy life does not make for an interesting story. We want the protagonist (the hero or heroine) to struggle against all odds and miraculously succeed. Maybe our hero is supposed to save the world, but he’s reluctant to accept his destiny. Maybe a guy likes a girl, but her self-esteem is too low to believe the truth. Maybe our heroine has the information to solve a crime, but she’s afraid to get involved. The internal and external conflicts are related and dependent on each other. External conflict:  a murderer is on the loose and threatening loved ones. Internal conflict:  protagonist can stop murderer and save loved ones if she has enough speed/intelligence/courage.

A character has goals (wants, needs, or desires) and is motivated to achieve them. The motivations are explained in the backstory—work that in later, not in the first chapter or two. The character will suffer hardships and sacrifices, feel worried and anxious, and face tough choices. As the story introduces more conflicts, the goals and motivations become more refined.

Let’s break this down. The following steps are inspired by Donald Maass and Susan May Warren (my examples are in italics). Answer these questions:

1. Who is you main character, and what is he/she at the beginning of the story (a defining trait—bookworm, athlete, musician, outsider, etc)? Now think of an opposite trait, and imagine how your character might become that opposite.  Eg:  Football quarterback starts writing poetry, hoping to someday impress a girl in the Poetry Club.

2. What does your character want most (his biggest goal)? Now think of a conflicting goal. Eg: QB wants to write more poetry, but he also wants to be starting QB. If he joins the Poetry Club, he might lose his QB spot; or his grades might drop too low if he doesn’t have enough time left to study.

3. What is your character’s biggest fear? Make him/her face that fear. Eg:  QB fears the football team will find out he likes poetry and call him a wuss. This actually happens when QB’s poetry notebook falls on the locker room floor.

4. What is one thing your character swears never to do? Make him/her do that one thing. Eg:  At the beginning, QB swears never to quit football … but he ends up quitting when his teammates alienate him.

5. What is your character’s darkest moment (just when things can’t get worse, they do) in the story? Will he go back to his old ways or change into a new person? Eg:  No longer part of the football team, QB tries to join the Poetry Club. But the kids there make fun of him and call him a jock. He feels like he doesn’t belong, and he considers rejoining the football team.

6. What is the lie your character believes? What truth will set him/her free? Eg:  QB believes he has to belong to a group to be happy. When he walks out of the Poetry Club meeting, the girl he likes follows him. They go to a local coffee shop and share their poetry with each other. The truth—one person who truly understands you will make you happier than a group of people who don’t. Epiphany!

Okay, so the quarterback-turned-poet idea is a little cheesy. But maybe the examples helped to illustrate the idea. Notice how the questions asked for opposites or contradictions—that’s how you get conflict! The more, the better. Goals + motivation + conflict = fascinating characters. 

Once you learn the answers to these questions, you’ll know your character so much better. Furthermore, you’ll have a big chunk of your plot figured out! That’s what I mean by character-driven stories—by knowing your character, you’ll automatically know what happens in the story.

Don’t stop there! Try answering these questions for the hero, heroine, villain, and secondary characters. It might be hard, but your efforts will be worth it when you create realistic characters … and a realistic plot.

If you’d like to learn more about developing characters, try reading this post I wrote back in January. If you need help choosing names for your characters, check out this website which gives the etymology and history of first names. 

This week’s assignment:  answer the six questions above for as many characters as you can. All the brainstorming will likely result in details and plot ideas—jot them all down in your notebook!

Next Saturday we’ll talk more about characters; they’re so important, they get two posts! Good luck this week, and let me know if you have questions!

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15 thoughts on “How to Make Your Characters Realistic

  1. Really great article. Thanks! I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve said and see the benefit of point 1) regarding the opposite traits in a character.

    This blog looks really interesting and I hope to take more a look round when I have a bit more time.

    • Thanks for your encouraging comment! I hope to see you around again! 🙂 Are you working on a novel right now?

  2. Okay, so the quarterback-turned-poet idea is a little cheesy.

    And kind of overdone/clichéd, imo… I like the way GLEE handled it with the starring QB who joined the Glee club. There is still tension between the groups, and with the QB and people within each group, but he basically said he was going to do both because he could and both groups needed him to win in the pilot episode. It was a good way to turn the stereotype around, I thought, while still keeping a lot of the social “hierarchy”/problems that go along with high school (especially, it seems, American high schools; it’s amazing to me how competitive it all is, from academics to sports to school clubs). The rest of the series could still explore that without having the QB being secretive about Glee.

    I think it would be awesome to have a poetry-writing QB, and him being more or less open about it. I don’t mean everyone in his life has to be accepting of it or whatnot (the teasing, the put-downs, the raised eyebrows… that could all still happen), but it would be something less common, I think. And I’d love even more if the poetry he wrote was terrible and so earnest. But that might just be me. 😉

    • LOL, I didn’t know what GLEE was, so I had to Google it. The clip I saw looked promising. I agree that ANYTHING to do with QBs could be overdone/cliched; it’s amazing how many movies or stories involve QBs (my high school was so small, we didn’t even have a football team, so I can’t fully comprehend this apparent HS icon). But last night while writing this blog post, I tried to think up a story example everyone could relate to. The QB is such a well-known character, and I took advantage of that for illustration purposes. I think a poet is even more opposite than a Glee club member—he’d still be in the spotlight for Glee club, whereas a poet might be so silent and withdrawn. I like the conflicting natures, though I doubt I’ll write about a poetry-writing QB anytime soon. 🙂 But like you said, the story could be written in other ways … the guy might stay in both, or give up one, etc. He might be a natural poet, or just terrible. LOL!

  3. Hi,

    Yes, I’ve completed one novel and am working on another. I’m waiting to send the first to an editor (cash is a bit of a problem now in the recession). I’ve been posting articles on creative writing techniques and on my blog at http://lawrence.wordpress.com Check them out if you have the time.

    Once again, thanks for your article on character and character-led plot. Particularly liked the stuff about opposite traits.

    • I checked out your site! My layout is the same as yours, LOL—it’s a great template. I can sympathize with the edits and rewrites of Novel 2 … that’s where I’m at right now, too. If I ever get time to work on it this summer, I’ll be blogging about rewrites. Good luck with Novel 1 and revisions of Novel 2! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Characters in You « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  5. Pingback: Types of Outlines « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  6. Pingback: First Draft Goals « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

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