When it comes to writing, there are a lot of opinions out there. Not only does every writer have their own pet theories on the craft, but there is an entire cottage industry that produces books, workshops, even full-blown conventions. All designed, not to make you a better writer, but separate you from your money.
But the fact remains you don’t have to spend tons of money to become a better writer. You just have to write. That plain, simple truth might not sell books or tickets, but it does produce quality writers.
When it comes to storytelling, there are plenty of opinions on what makes a great book. These days, it’s all about “high concept” plots. Best-selling books are much like big-budget Hollywood movies. They go all-in with the intense action, heavy special effects, and sweeping emotions.
But, in my opinion, they leave you feeling empty. Plot-driven books are real page-turners, but they’re not the kind of thing people will be reading years to come. They’re certainly not the kind of books that stick with you. Nor are they the ones that children will be reading in school or writers look to for inspiration and guidance.
What makes a book timeless? Characters. Strong, believable characters that feel like real people. We root for heroes because we relate to them. Plot-driven books have cookie-cutter characters, people that act a certain way because the plot demands it. They never feel all that real, and they’re certainly not memorable.
But how to do you write strong, believable characters that will stick with a reader? Here are 5 ways to write real-feeling characters.
1. Make your characters want something
Characters need to have a goal. That’s plot. But the goal needs to be rooted in a deep need or desire. Every human on the planet is driven by desires: desires for food, love, money, whatever.
But you can’t just say, “Jonas wants to be free.” You need to dig into their past. You need to show their feelings. Even the most reserved, emotionless character has some level of emotion, deep down inside. Perhaps plunging into why they’re so detached from their emotions could be the core of the story’s subtext.
Put your characters in situations that reveal this need. Explore their desire. How does the antagonist get in his way? What does he have to do to get his need? And what happens if he fails?
2. Give your characters personality
There are many ways to do this. In plot-driven books, personality is almost an afterthought. A writer is so obsessed with moving from one scene to the next, that it doesn’t even occur to them how their characters should be behaving.
Is your character funny? Is she serious? Is she too serious? How does she react when a car drives by, splashing water on her coat? Does she get upset? Does she chase the car down the street? Does she crumple up and cry?
Every scene is an opportunity to build your character’s personality. They need that. Your readers need to connect to your characters on some level. Giving them unique personalities is crucial.
And once you establish their personalities, you have to stick to them. Inconsistency kills a story. If your hero is honest and patient, he can’t suddenly snap at his love interest. Drastic changes in a personality can only come as a result of major impacts throughout the story. Those are called arcs and they’re the actual goal of a good book.
3. Put your characters through pain
No matter how much you love your protagonist, they have to go through pain. Pain reveals what they’re really made of. Pain is one of the most important ways readers relate to a character.
Humor can win over a crowd. But pain makes them care. Seeing a character lose out, miss a big opportunity, or have things not go their way shows us they are vulnerable. They’re not invincible, which is boring. They suffer the same as we do. Yet they carry on, giving us hope.
Pain gives us a chance to see how the character overcomes. Does he muster his courage and defeat the enemy? Or maybe he succumbs to his demons and turns into the very evil he once feared (like Arthur Fleck in Joker)?
Pain doesn’t need to be overdone. Just enough to motivate the character into action. Even a happy story needs to have a few dark clouds. Watching the character go through the pain and come out the other side is what’s rewarding.
4. Draw from your personal experiences.
Now, I’m not someone who recommends writing about yourself. These are characters in a fiction story. This is not an autobiography.
But it’s impossible to say that a writer doesn’t put himself into his stories. All writers do. It’s usually an unconscious thing.
I’m not saying you should create characters that are just like you. That would get boring if everyone in your story was the same! But you can and should draw from your own viewpoints, fears, attitudes, and questions to help inform your character.
Characters can represent different sides of your personality. They can embrace your darker tendencies. They can embody your greatest strengths. Just don’t make it about your ego. This is just to get perspective on these characters, so they feel and act like real people. Which brings me to my final point:
5. Study others to gain insight into character.
Some writers like to go to public places and “people watch.” I know quite a few people who like to do this.
This isn’t eavesdropping on others’ conversations but simply observing how different people behave. Some people are outgoing and bursting with energy. Others like to keep to themselves, even in a social setting. Some people bottle up their anger, revealing it only in body language. Others can’t help but revealing their emotions at the drop of a hat.
Take note of all of this. How would your character behave if he were dumped at Starbucks? Does your character like to talk about herself, like that girl taking selfies? Think about all the diversity of personalities around you and decide how to integrate some of them into your characters.