Nothing gets a rejection faster than unrealistic characters. From the opening page, everything revealed about them builds expectations. And a story falls flat when the characters fail to uphold those expectations. The result is a contrived story that will make readers put your book down…and that’s the last thing we want!
Behold, 3 Valuable Tips for Creating Realistic Characters
Tip #1—Give Your Character Personal Motivation
Only one thing drives a story forward: Character motivation. A plethora of authors make the mistake of drafting detailed storylines and plugging their characters into place. Though a storyline may give direction, Alan Watt advises we should hold our stories loosely in his book The 90-Day Novel: Unlocking the Story Within.
If the character isn’t motivated to achieve something personal, the story drags. In other words, if your characters don’t care, neither will your readers.
Storyline with No Character Motivation: Tad Smith is determined to follow family tradition and climb Mount Everest—both his father and grandfather tried and succeeded. Tad and his crew encounter trials and tribulations on the treacherous journey and Tad even loses his best friend George along the way. In the end, he reaches the top…but at what price? Tad learns a hard-knock lesson in priorities that forever changes his life.
While this is nice, there’s not really anything driving us to read this story. A bunch of guys climb a mountain, stuff happens to them along the way and in the end they learn a lesson. But there’s nothing to care about. Let’s revise a little, shall we?
Storyline with Character Motivation: Tad Smith’s father believes he isn’t strong enough to carry on the family tradition of climbing Mount Everest…but Tad is determined to prove his father wrong and gathers a crew who are just as resolute. With his best friend George at his side, Tad and his crew encounter trials and tribulations on the treacherous journey, but giving up is not an option. If Tad accepts defeat, his father will be right, and the crew is determined to conquer the mountain for fortune and glory. George is fatally injured and, with his dying breath, tells Tad he can do anything…he just needs to believe in himself. Tad demands his crew turn back. He won’t lose anyone else to his personal ambitions and vows to continue alone. George’s sacrifice will not be in vain. The crew refuses to abandon Tad and they all agree to continue. In the end, they reach the top and Tad can finally gain the respect of his father...but his father doesn’t care and refuses to acknowledge Tad’s achievement. Only then does Tad realize the truth—he didn’t need his father to believe in him; he needed to believe in himself. The crew receives honor, glory and riches for their efforts, but their victory is bittersweet as they toast to George’s empty chair.
This revised storyline is more about the characters’ relationships versus a bunch of guys climbing a mountain. It’s about brotherhood and learning how to believe in yourself. The story has potential because the character motivation is linked to personal goals.
Tip #2—KNOW Your Characters
Many authors make their characters do things with the sole purpose of driving the storyline in a certain direction. All authors should ask themselves one question as they write: “How would my character respond in this situation?” Let’s say you’re writing a sci-fi story and a vicious, drooling alien is about to attack a defenseless child. Your shy, bookworm heroine suddenly finds hidden courage, draws the nearby Samurai swords on display and hacks the alien into sushi. You may need your character to do this, but unless you establish a hidden strength in your shy character early in the story, the actions come off as phony.
Here’s another way of putting it. Imagine someone you’ve known most of your life (e.g., your overprotective, neat-freak grandmother) and plug them into your latest story. Now rephrase the question, “How would Grandma respond in this situation?” Grandma might glance at the swords, but in reality she would pick up her trusty broom, stand like a lioness in front of the child and scold the alien for the slimy mess it’s making before whacking it into submission. The point is you wouldn’t have Grandma wielding Samurai swords and hacking the alien into sushi because you know Grandma hates sushi. All joking aside, you get the point?
This is the level of depth you must establish when creating your characters. You must know them—inside and out.
Tip #3—Listen to Real Dialogue between Real People
Dialogue is a great way to reveal information in a story. However, a lot of authors take this tip to an unrealistic level. Let’s use Tad for our example and engage him in some dialogue with his father.
“I’ve told you a hundred times, Tad, you’re not strong enough to climb Mount Everest. You’ll never have the honor of achieving the family tradition your grandfather and I obtained.”
Tad clenched his fists at his side. “You’re wrong, Dad! I’ve been training for years, just like you and Grandpa did. I’m going to make you proud. You’ll see!”
“It has less to do with physical strength, son.” Jeremy poked his finger into Tad’s chest. “Have you forgotten you were in therapy for three years trying to recover from your mother’s death? Don’t you remember how your grandfather almost died climbing that mountain? He trained for ten years and had two failed attempts before he succeeded. Everest changed him. He experienced hallucinations, lost friends!”
Question: if Tad’s whole purpose is to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, doesn’t he know all this already? Two people don’t rehash information they both already know. The only purpose of this dialogue is to inform the reader about their history. It sounds stilted, forced and contrived. Also, there’s no mystery to make the readers want to keep flipping pages. Let’s try again:
Jeremy crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. “I talked Bradley out of sponsoring you.”
“You did what?” Tad clenched his jaw, waiting for an explanation, but his father offered none. He steadied his breath. “I have plenty of other sponsors I can—”
“And I’ll talk them out of it, too.” Jeremy stalked forward until he was nose-to-nose with Tad. “You know how I feel about this.”
“What more can I do prove I’m ready for this? Don’t you think I’ve trained hard enough over the last ten years?” Tad crossed his own arms in defiance. “I’ve endured—”
“You don’t get it!” Jeremy threw his hands in the air. “Conquering Everest isn’t about physical strength, son!” He stabbed his index finger into Tad’s chest. “You’re not strong here! You’re not like me, and that mountain will kill you like it almost killed your grandfather. That’s why he was never the same after he came home.”
Tad fought the stinging in his eyes and inwardly cursed when tears slipped down his cheek.
“See what I mean? You can’t even handle a simple truth about yourself. You couldn’t even deal with your mother’s death.” Jeremy stomped to the door. “You’re not going,” he said over his shoulder. “That’s final.”
This dialogue reveals their feelings for each other while leaving many things unsaid that scream through the undertones of their behavior. Also, keep in mind the information left out can be woven into the story later where it’s more appropriate. The most important thing is to let the dialogue unfold naturally.
We Can Help!
There is so much more that contributes to realistic, believable and even memorable characters: backstory, foundational behavior that establishes a character’s personality through actions, psychology and human nature. The list goes on and on.
This fall, Mystical Press Services is releasing a list of classes geared toward character development: Character Development Essentials (CDE) Power Class (coming soon) and Crafting Believable Characters (CBC) Class Series (available for pre-order now). We have another class coming in early 2013 titled Creating Memorable Characters (CMC). Why so many? Because crafting believable characters is paramount to writing a great story. When you register on our site, be sure to let us know which blog referred you so your hostess will be recognized. Registered users will be informed when new classes are added to the catalogue.
We encourage you to share some of your experiences with creating characters or valuable tips you may have learned along the way. If you have any questions, please ask! Leave a comment or question and we’ll enter you in a drawing for a $25 eGift good toward any services or classes at our website. Good luck and thanks for participating!
Mystical Press Services is the culmination of two authors and professionally trained editors—Arial Burnz and AJ Nuest—who help authors bridge the gap between the form rejection letter and publication. In fact, we believe in this venture so passionately, our tagline is “Helping authors achieve their dreams.” We also assist authors for self-publication. Come dream with us!
Thanks Ariel and AJ - a lot of really helpful tips and information as always!
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