Realistic Characters

Thursday, December 05, 2013
I was reading a play script the other day, and although I liked the storyline, something about the main character turned me off. I couldn't quite put my finger on why the character bothered me, but something was off.

A few days later, I reread the script. Same response.

This little experiment made me wonder: how can writers write realistic characters that resonate with readers?

I don't profess to have the magic formula, but I have strategies that I've implemented while writing fiction, and so far, they work.

First, I consult my creative conscious and "old" memory bank. Here, I look for memories and feelings that I'm able to associate with. In my play, "Boy, Blue" I tell the true-life tale of a murder mystery that happened in Nebraska in 1985, when a young boy's body was found frozen in a field on Christmas Eve. At the time of this event, I had an almost-two-year-old daughter, and we lived 50 miles from where this happened. I dug up those emotions from that time, remembering how people were in the area were scared the same thing could happen to their child. Don't be afraid to revisit the emotional aspect of a situation first. These feelings establish a tone for characterization.

Second, I use past experiences and locations to place a character. Then, I pull details these snippets of memory and weave them into the character. When I wrote "Ladder, Engine," a play about 9/11 and a group of firemen, I tapped into my memory of a summer spent in New York in 1999. We would walk past the local Fire House and, almost always, a fireman would be outside, working on equipment or sprucing up the landscaping or sitting against the brick building, watching the world pass by until the fire alarm sounded. I remembered a particular fireman, a muscular fellow with a thick Brooklyn accent, who cooked for the squad. He wore an apron, something a grill master might wear, and he'd wipe his hands on the bottom edge it while he talked to co-workers or to those of us passing by. I used that image to establish the character of Ed in the play. That singular character trait made Ed memorable.

Third, I ask myself 'why' a character would act a certain way. What makes the character tick? Did something happen in the character's past that triggers a certain response? If you're a people watcher, you may find it easy to deduce what makes a person tick. Add these psychological elements, and you'll have a relatable character.

Today, when I perused the script for the third time, I figured out why I couldn't relate with the main character. The character didn't give off any sense of emotion. He was stagnant, could have been anyone, instead of portraying a specific character with a specific purpose.

Don't let that happen in your writing.

By LuAnn Schindler


Sioux Roslawski said...

Definitely, characters need to ring true. I don't write fiction very often but when I do, I try to let what happens to them make as much of an organic impact as possible.

I try to think, 'How would I react to this event?' and transform it accordingly...

Margo Dill said...

Good advice, LuAnn, and I might add doing character sketches ahead of time, even if you are a pantser, can really help while writing. It makes a huge difference for example how your character will react to a situation if he/she is an introvert or an extrovert. I think taking that day or two to write down your character's personality can make all the difference in fiction. I have learned from experience!

Anonymous said...

Emotion is a great way to help your readers connect with the character. This is especially true if the character is significantly different from your readers. Thanks for the reminder!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great advice, Annie! I've created a few unrelatable characters in my time and it's usually because I haven't given them enough emotion. I use details and locations from my personal experiences as well. I'm excited about your script! It sounds like it's really coming together. :)

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