5 Ways to Write Real-feeling Characters

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.

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#showyourwork: What I’m Learning about Writing

Fish Out of Water

Nothing’s going to teach you like actual work.  I’ve read books on writing, but the best lessons have come from just putting pen to paper.  The ideas sort of cement themselves into your brain through repeated use, like the moves of an athlete.

I’ve learned some stuff about characters.  My favorite kind, for the moment, is the Fish Out of Water.  This character is thrust into a bizarre new environment and is force to adapt.  He is constantly making mistakes, getting into danger, and needs someone to save him.  Sounds like a real wimp, but there are advantages to having him in a story.

1. The fish is stupid.  In a fantasy story, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on.  A reader will need to be introduced and explained the setting.  That can become BORING, because it slows down the story or make it feel like a history textbook.  In comes the Fish.  He’s new to the world too (a few eg’s: Harry is new to Hogwarts, Luke is new to the Force, Bilbo is new to everything).  This newbie is stupid and needs things explained to him/her.  So when an experienced character stops to tell him how things work, it’s also explained to the reader.  How sneaky!

2. The fish is relatable.  The power of story is that it sucks the reader into it.  A reader needs to feel a part of what’s going on, or they’ll lose interest.  Most often the reader will connect with a character.  They will walk in their shoes.  There needs to be character the reader sympathizes with or has something in common.  Why do you think so many teenage girls devoured the Twilight books?  Because the main was an average teenage girl caught in a love triangle with two superhuman men.  If all the characters of story are supermen, faultless and can do anything, the reader will never plunge into the story.  As much as we want to be Aragorn, we’re all Samwise deep down inside.

3. The fish has an Arc.  What’s an arc?  It’s the inner journey of change that a character experiences.  Every story needs a character arc, or it’s a flat mess.  The events of the story need to force the mains to grow, adapt and change–not always for the better.  The fish is a character that absolutely must change or they’ll never make it to the end.  They learn to overcome the obstacles, finding a strength in them they never knew existed (Site: every main character in a Neil Gaiman novel).  That kind of a change also connects with the reader personally.  They will feel like something meaningful has happened inside them as well and their time hasn’t been wasted (again, because of the connect made with the character).

A fish doesn’t need to be a wimp, kid or novice.  He/she just needs to be someone out of their element.  Someone that needs to grow in order to survive the story.  And in the end the reader grows too.