Ten tips on developing realistic characters

1. Make them flawed.

In a lot of the books I read by aspiring authors, there’s an inclination to want to make a character perfect.  Perfect is unrealistic and worse, boring.  On the other end of the spectrum is the “fatal flaw,” to those who have read Shakespeare, which is basically the type of personal weakness that kills everyone at the story’s end!!  You can go for a happy medium.  Flaws make characters more human to the reader.  The flaws may also play an important part in how the story unfolds, because these traits influence your character’s decisions/actions. 

2. Show their personalities through dialogue

Dialogue moves a story forward, helps you world-build, and reveals people’s personalities.  Why spend a paragraph describing how stubborn someone is when you can put your character in a situation where it not only shows, but where someone else is forced to react to it?

3. Characters reveal their mettle through the choices they make in the book

Let them live.  If they take your book a different direction than you intended, go with it to see where they take you.  You can always rewrite.

4. Study people to understand emotional responses

How does someone look, sound, and act when s/he is sad?  Excited? Apprehensive?  From tone of voice to nonverbal, watch the people around you (or on TV!)

5. Keep their actions and dialogue consistent with their personalities

Sudden change in someone’s personality – without reason – confuses the reader.  Characters are people, too, with long lives behind them.  Take their histories into consideration when determining how they will act/react in any given situation.

6.  Mess with your characters

See what they’re made of.  What would they do if they won the lottery?  In a bad mood?  Create a scene where your character is trapped in a challenging situation and see how they react.  If you can’t make them real on paper, then it’s very hard to make them real to a reader.

7.  Perception is reality, even for characters

The classic train of thought is that every character is faced with either challenging his/her view on something (a prejudice, self-perception, goals, romance, life in general, etc.) or confirming it.  The key is that every character is going to see his/her world through a flawed perception that may/may not jive with the perceptions of others.  This is one way of building tension and good dialogue. 

8. No character is omniscient

Only you are.  (In your book, at least!)

9.  Don’t give your supporting characters cardboard personalities.

You don’t have to spend the same amount of time developing them like you will a main character, but they need to be human.  Use tip 11 below to sketch even a supporting character’s personality, then find a way to show (through dialogue or action), even if the character only has a few lines.

10. It’s ok if readers hate your characters

As long as they hate them because they’re realistic jerks, cowards, traitors, stuck-ups, etc.  Readers can hate a well-developed character because the character is supposed to come off the way s/he does.  If readers hate your characters because they’re poorly developed, that’s a different story.

And a bonus tip:

11. Summarize each character’s personality in one sentence.

I’m a huge fan of one sentence summaries of everything from characters to plots.  The reason: it’s harder to create an accurate description in one sentence than it is to spend pages describing it.  But if you can do it, your character/plot is probably solid.  You can then use that one sentence to keep you on track.  Write it on a sticky note and post it next to your computer.  If you’re wondering if your character is acting as s/he should, re-read it. 

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