Make Your Characters Real

When I debated the wisdom of agreeing to present a workshop recently I was totally stymied as to what to present. But then, after much thought, I decided on characters because without them we have very little to say in a romance novel. With generous help from some fellow authors and readers I tried to define what makes a character real and how do we project our reality to our readers.

How many times have you looked in the mirror before going out somewhere and felt you looked pretty all right? Then later, you see a photo of yourself, taken that same day, and you’re left asking yourself “OMG, I don’t look like that do I?”

Often, what we ‘see’ as a writer, is not what we project to our readers, so it’s important to think about and work out what makes your characters as real to your readers as they are to you.

One author (Nalini Singh, Harlequin and Berkley author) said:

“I like having a back story that explains why the character is acting as they are so I can sympathize with them. It’s also important to me that they be an individual with flaws as well as good points, not cookie-cutter types.”

Okay, so back story. What has gone before in your character’s life? Everything about how they’ve lived their lives up to the point of change that starts your story is important about how they’ve been crafted as a person. And yes, they are a person. A real living, breathing person in your story. The trick is to impart just how real and living they are without making it sound like a shopping list.

Another reader told me that for her:

“…it’s almost always internal dialogue, followed by how that character treats others.  It’s part of why I love Nora Roberts’ writing so much – I know she doesn’t follow the ‘POV rules’ but I absolutely love, love, love knowing what each character is thinking in a given scene.  For me it makes for a much richer story as opposed to something that detracts.”

Internal dialogue——this often helps to make your story flow. You’re talking but using your character’s voice, speech patterns and deepest thoughts to make that section of narrative in your book sound and feel as though you’re privy to that character’s deepest and most private thoughts. Almost like eavesdropping in a way.

I loved what this reader had to say:

“I guess to me it’s deep characterization, which includes little flaws and 
quirks. Things that make a character go beyond ‘call central casting for Mr. Right.’ It can come across in dialogue, gesture, deep POV, etc., but it’s those little things that make the character unique, like a real person.”

Deep characterisation. What does that make you think of, how do everyday things affect your characters, how does their back story affect how they react to specific things?

Some time ago, I bought a particularly large and, to most people, very ugly belt buckle. When I saw it in a haberdashery shop, in a remainder basket, it immediately intrigued me. I had dreams and visions of a man whose father had been a rodeo star but had hit the bottle, lost all his winnings and drove himself into an early grave while his family were put out on the street and forced to eke out a living. His mother, totally disenchanted with her lot, threw all the father’s belt buckles, his trophies, in the trash. But the hero pulled this one out. The first belt buckle his father won as a boy. The one that made him realise he could be anything he wanted and reach for his dreams. And now, even though the hero isn’t a rodeo rider, the hero keeps that buckle on his belt to remind him of the importance of holding on to dreams and of striving to reach your goals and not letting anyone or anything stand in your way.

Anyway, that was my split second of recognition with the buckle. When I picked it out of the basket, the woman at the counter didn’t hesitate to say “Oh, that ugly thing. Yeah, they were popular when line dancing came out. We can’t get rid of them fast enough.” All right, so maybe she wasn’t into boot scooting and denim topped off with a ten gallon hat. The woman in question was tall, much taller than me, very thin and probably a good ten or fifteen years older than me. I know how difficult it was to be a tall female growing up, but in general there were enough other tall people around me while I was an insecure teenager that it didn’t really matter (much). Now roll back the clock ten or fifteen years and think about how much more difficult it would have been for that woman to simply ‘fit in’.. She was head and shoulders taller than her peers (which possibly accounts for her posture today), she has very strongly defined, even unusual, features, which would have made it even more difficult to live the kind of life that perhaps many of her girlfriends did. Nothing she could have bought for herself would have come off the rack, and if it did it simply would never have been long enough, or fit properly if it were long enough. Now imagine a group of happy boot scooting line dancers… all pretty much of a size, all pretty well coordinated and throw into that equation an over—tall, very thin and gangly woman and see how she feels about herself in that situation.

See how using deep characterisation can make a difference to how your character will react to a given situation? The important thing, too, is not to imbue the situation with your reactions. As the writer you have to remain true to your character’s reactions, your character’s voice and how the situation makes them react (unless of course you are using yourself as the basis for your character in which case you should be able to make them so real they leap of the page and grab the reader by the throat to say “Look at me——understand me!” Don’t let yourself interfere with your characters’ story.

I’d like to close with some sage words from other authors who shared their thoughts with me. This one from Emilie Rose, Harlequin author:

“Internal dialog does a lot to bond the reader to the character.  I guess I see that as the delivery method for the following:

“… having identifiable problems, worries, etc. also helps us bond with a character. e.g. problems we either share or know someone who has the same one. Perfect people who never struggle with anything are hard to like.

“An understandable goal is critical, and whatever the character wants the reader has to understand why it’s important for him/her to attain it, and to believe it’s worth the risk to pursue it… that means believable motivation.

“A likeable personality.  If a character is an ass or bitch throughout the book (and it’s not well motivated or the character is not redeemable) then the reader just won’t care what happens to him/ her and probably won’t finish the book.

“… all these lump together to make a sympathetic character.

“A gesture is good if it’s a telling one…e.g. she picks her nails when she’s nervous. It can become a silent communication with the reader when you’re not in that character’s POV.”

All of those things mentioned help to layer your character and develop them into the kind of person you want to read more about, cry with, laugh with and reach a happy ever after ending with.

This comment from Jan Colley, Harlequin author, sums it up:

“… warmth, honesty and courage, even if they’re not all apparent at the same time. You can find the warmth if you scratch the surface, bring it out. The honesty must be there to show they are worthy of the love that your hero or heroine wants to bless them with. And the courage to consider the change that this momentous love affair will have on them——and not to shy away from it in the end.”

If you think you don’t know your characters well enough——you’re probably right. How do you get to know them better? Well, sometimes just writing through the book helps divulge reactions or behaviours that you didn’t realise were sitting below the surface of their psyche. Things they hadn’t shared with you yet. It’s a simple enough process when you go back and polish your manuscript, with the firm knowledge of how the characters have developed through the book, to thread those mannerisms, thoughts and reactions into the beginning to help round out your character into a real enough person for your reader to forget everything else but what it’s going to take to see the character happy at the end of the book.

Bronwyn Jameson, Harlequin author, says that for her:

“Real characters come through voice: I need to feel that I’m hearing the character, that I’m walking through the story in his/her shoes, that I’m living the adventure, the action, the romance with them.  That’s the epitome of ‘real’ to me and I get it through deep point of view writing——the kind of introspection and observation and visceral description that comes from the uniqueness of the character(s).  Also, the little things help: the quirks and the flaws and the everyday titbits to which I can relate.  So does identifiable conflict/issues, whether s a woman who’s felt the same or knows she would feel the same in that situation OR because she’s dealing with the very male traits that drive me crazy on a daily basis.”

If you still don’t think you know your character enough by the end, maybe you’ve been inconsistent with their behaviour or their dialogue, or forced them to do something they really wouldn’t do—something ‘out of character’. You have to be ruthless about being true to your character’s voice, true to their reactions. If you’re having trouble, it might pay to flick through a magazine, find a picture and write about it from one protagonist’s point of view, and then from your other protagonist’s points of view. Find out how the thing in the picture affects them—more importantly, find out WHY. Poke them, prod them, delve deeper into their life and background until you know them as well as you know yourself.

Then, you’re taking the steps to build and form real characters for your readers to love and want to read, as much as you love and want to write them.