On Writing “Real” Characters

When you hear “character driven story,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably a piece of classic literature, possibly by someone like Louisa May Alcott or one of the Brontë sisters. Perhaps you are a fan of those stories, and it kindles a convivial flame in your bosom. Or perhaps you are, like me, a person who tends to run in the opposite direction in distaste. It’s not that they aren’t good books; it’s just that I like a complex but quickly paced narrative with adventure, humor, and a few plot twists to spice things up.

My first attempts at writing mirror this desire: action scenes start on the first page and there’s never any lull in the pace. Rereading now, I find it by turns disorienting and boring—and even when the constancy of unrelenting motion isn’t confusing, it’s impossible to really care about the characters on anything greater than a superficial level. The rush of the plot prevents establishing introductions to the characters, whose only distinguishing features are their eclectic names. I went into those stories with a plot, quickly waning enthusiasm, and…nothing else. Plot-driven stories are fantastic—without plot, it quickly becomes some abstract symbolism-type speculation more reminiscent of a character study. However, when plot is the only thing happening, it’s difficult to become invested, and so the reader is unaffected by the protagonist. This can come out one of two ways:

  1. The reader enjoys the story and is pulled through by wanting to know how the climax and denouement will play out. After finishing, though, they cannot recall more than cursory information about any of the characters (including their names) and, if they attempt to reread it, may find themselves unable to do so. The plot was compelling enough to carry them through the first read-through, but any subsequent attempt will leave them feeling dissatisfied and discourage them from finishing.
  2. The reader does not find the plot compelling enough to read until the end, and puts the book down. This can happen anywhere from the beginning to over halfway through—it depends on the reader’s perseverance (and, potentially, their boredom level).

When a character is created exclusively to fill in the plot, there is a 99.9% chance that they’ll end up two-dimensional. (The .1% chance is an outlier; it’s always possible for the character to develop a life of their own and hijack the story into something good. You never know.) They pop into being with no context, no formational backstory to explain their behavior, and none of the aspects that connotate proper characterization.

Think of it like this: you meet someone. At this point, you know next to nothing about them except their name (unless you’re a bona fide Sherlock Holmes, or some sort of stalker). Once you spend more time with them, however, the little quirks in their personality are made known to you. You can now evaluate them and decide whether you are friends, enemies, or still mere acquaintances. Now think of this in a plot-driven context:

So where’s the compromise? Turns out, all that’s necessary is a reorganization of your process. You have a great plot idea, but now what you need are strong three-dimensional characters to carry it through. Create a character, then spend some time to take this character, and flesh them out. If your character is truly fleshed out, you’ll be able to answer for what they’d do in most any situation, since they become a person in your mind.

Avoid the temptation of making any of your characters Superman; all your characters should have multiple flaws (like real people) and multiple “weaknesses” or fears (like real people) and complicated morals and boundaries (like, you guessed it, real people).

Once you’ve accumulated a cast of solid characters, insert them into the story. You know how they’d act. You know how they’d react. You know their group dynamic and their individual dynamics. You accumulate all the important little snippets of information that really make these into real people (inasmuch as fictional constructs can be real).
It could lead to some changes in plot, but, well, characters are like that. They commandeer your narrative and steer you in ways you don’t expect. As a writer, it’s quite likely that sometimes your stories will surprise you as much as they will your readers. And that’s good; you’ll have written something that affects people in some way, that makes them think, that has characters to whom they can relate.

That’s the sort of story I want to read.

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