Has this ever happened to you? You’re reading a book, watching a movie or TV show, and suddenly you’re shouting, “(Character’s name) wouldn’t do that!”
Sometimes our fictional characters in fact will do – or say – things that are … well … out of character.
An acquaintance of mine – when her character once did something wildly improbable – protested, “But I need her to do that! It’s important to the plot!”
That is, in fact, true of us nonfictional characters. Nearly all of us have, at one time or another, done something that we later look back at with regret … remorse … or simply a bewildered headshake.
But when we think about it, we realize we had a reason for our actions at the time. It might not have been a good reason. It might have been a very bad reason. But it was a reason …
The characters we create in our stories must be equally motivated. That’s what makes them believable – what makes them real to our readers. “Because I need her to do that” isn’t a reason.
For starters, if our characters are to be real to our readers, they have to be real to us. Where were they born? What kind of childhood did they have? What’s the character’s view of life and the world? How does he or she react to stress? How does she, or he, regard the opposite sex?
You don’t have to actually write out the history of your character’s life – although some writers do – but you do need some basic idea of what makes this person tick.
What you want is a character who is a living, breathing person in your reader’s mind. One trick that helps me – and I know other authors who’ve done the same – is to base the character’s persona on someone you actually know. Or … know about. For example, Tevis, the elf detective in my Portals series, is an amalgam in part of Sherlock Holmes and Illya Kuryakin, the Russian spy in the old Man From Uncle TV series. Kat Morales, his human partner, is (okay, confession time) the me I’d like to be – more courageous, more forceful …
Not to mention younger, thinner and prettier!
Most important, once you’ve created your characters and set them in motion, you have to treat them as real people, not puppets. They won’t do what you want – or need them to do – unless you provide them with solid motive for their actions. Kat, for example, is a stand-up police detective, daughter of a Marine drill sergeant. Could I make her rob a bank?
Only if the life of someone she cared about – her dad, her mom, Tevis … – depended on it. Even then, it’s something she’d agonize about.
Get inside your characters’ heads when you create them. Think about why they do what they do – or under what circumstances they’d do what you need them to do. Think about how events in your plot affect them – and how their actions affect the plot. Let your characters become real to you.
That can help make them real to your readers.
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