How To Write Brilliantly Real Characters
What’s Harry Potter’s favourite song? What would Marianne Dashwood like for her birthday? How would Jon Snow act at a party?
It’s not enough to just know your character’s back story and what they’re going to do next. To create truly believable and complex characters, you need to know their hopes, their fears and that secret they’ve never told anyone. You need to know how they’d react in any situation. Even if you took them out of the world of your book and put them in someone else’s.
Real people are rarely just good or bad, so why should the people in your book be? All of the most interesting characters have different sides to them. Villains don’t have to be purely evil, they can be vulnerable, misunderstood and temperamental, you name it. I only need two words to make my point: Severus Snape.
And to stay on the Harry Potter thought train, even the baddest villain of them all isn’t a cliché. Sure, Voldemort’s completely evil but that’s not his only defining characteristic. For most of the series, he’s physically weak. He’s insecure, not just about his family and his beginnings, but that another wizard out there could actually destroy him. He can be scared, power hungry, impatient and arrogant as hell all over the course of a few chapters. Brilliant characters reveal themselves to us over time, they change, they adapt and sometimes even discover new parts of their personality throughout the story.
And I know other readers will have their own interpretations of my favourite characters. That’s the great thing about wonderfully crafted characters – they have so many different sides to them that you can explore.
How to create complex book characters
So how do you get in on it then? It just takes some prep and a lot of imagination. Ready?
1) Start simple – describe your main characters in three words. And try to stay away from physical attributes. So if I was going to describe Jane Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, I wouldn’t just say ‘beautiful, fair and slim’, I’d go for ‘kind, loyal and beautiful’. Because, although her beauty is a defining characteristic and commented upon throughout the book, she is much more than just a pretty face.
2) List their strengths and weaknesses. This is how you find their comfort zone. Because how else are you going to push them out of it? You can use their strengths to define them and how they approach things, and use their weaknesses to help create the jeopardy throughout your novel and give them obstacles to overcome.
3) Explore their motivations. Every single action needs to have a reason. It’s not enough for your character to just go into the woods because you want them to, they need to have a motive for going there. Perhaps they’re going to save their best friend? Maybe they’re longing for some adventure or it could be they’re feeling reckless and want to get into danger? Think of the absolute main thing your character wants in the whole world. It’s important to know this, as you’re going to put everything in their way of getting it throughout the story. After you have this key motivation, you can add a few other goals that help make them who they are.
4) Describe them – in their own words. It’s important to have a well-rounded view of your character and how they interact with people, but it’s also important to know how they think of themselves and how they’d describe themselves to others. Imagine your character introducing themselves to someone new, to someone they want to impress, and to someone they don’t like. Then imagine how their best friend, their mother and their rival would describe them too. Think of Bridget Jones for example – you might describe her as funny, impulsive and hapless, but she might prefer to think of herself as optimistic, caring and independent. It’s all about perspective.
5) Interview them. It’s time to go a bit further to build your character’s background.What are they most proud of? Who are their heroes? What’s their proudest achievement? Once you’ve got all of the basics down you can random interview questions to delve a bit deeper into their beliefs, who they are and what they want from the world.
6) Map out their personality. By now you should know almost everything about your character – from how they think, to what they want and how they see themselves. I’m really interested in personality tests and how they can make us face up to some of those traits we’re not so proud of. So for this step, take a personality test as your character (I use Myers Briggs and am apparently a walking-contradiction of an INFJ). Answer it as them, not you. You’ll then have a profile to help better describe them and how they will interact with other personality types. And if you need to write some new characters from scratch, exploring the different personality types can be a good starting point to start building a more believable group of diverse personalities.
Happy writing everyone!
What other character-driven writing exercises are you a fan of? Do you usually map your characters out before you start, or do you jump in and see where they take you?