Four Original Ways To Create A Character That’s Real
How can we make our character 'true to life'?
How can we create a character so ‘real’ that our readers think they’ve known that person all their lives? Of course, one way is to stick pictures of our main characters, clipped from magazines, around our wall. And talk to them. Soon they’ll be as real to us as our own neighbours, especially when they talk back to us!
Hopefully, they’ll seem real to our readers too.
Interview them for a job
A more ingenious way is to pretend our characters are applying for a job at our company. We interview them. We toss them wicked questions. The answers they give us might surprise us! They’ll also provide snippets of dialogue we can work into our stories.
But an even better way to write a story with ‘real’ breathing characters is to get to know them from the inside. Then drop them into challenging situations. How can we do that?
Find someone we know intimately. And build our story around that person. Who do we know intimately? Why, ourselves, of course! But be careful. Agents sigh when they read a novel that’s too blatantly auto-biographical.
It’s the sign of a newbie writer.
Instead, think of folk who know us very well - our spouse, partner, closest friend - and ask them: “how would I act in this given situation?” After they’ve blinked twice, they might reply: “you’d do this”.
Trust me, it will be the last thing you’d have thought of. At once, you’ll learn some painful truths about yourself. More usefully, you’ve discovered your character. It’s you, yet not you.
That character can now be developed painlessly without all the personal baggage and emotional blockages entailed in ‘writing the self’.
Needless to say, reserve that technique for just a few pivotal points in your story, where your character faces a life-changing situation. (Otherwise, your friends might grow distant.) Soon enough you’ll know intuitively how your mannequin would respond to any event. You’re ‘inside’ that character.
It’s you, yet not you.
This can be a wonderfully liberating exercise, quite apart from its value in crafting a story. You discover the boundless potential of your own personality. You might even ‘become’ that person, at least while immersed in your story. To write a sequel is a snip. Stand back and let your other self do it!
A story written in that way has emotional truth built in. It glows with authenticity. It’s also fun to write. “This morning I shall be Captain Jubb, patron of the arts, master criminal and the most eligible bachelor in London.” (Pause for wicked chortle.)
Another fun idea...
Here’s an exercise you might propose to your writing group, if you have one. Each member must pretend to be a main character in their own story. And the other members fire questions at them, the more penetrating the better.
“How do you feel about global warming? Female priests? Oysters?”
The answers the author gives should not be their opinions but their character’s. Then the group can have fun and probe deeper.
“How can you defend your belief in free enterprise when it has caused so much hardship in the world?” Etc.
How would our character defend themselves?
It doesn’t matter whether the author believes in free enterprise (etc) or not. Their character does! How would they defend themselves? A few rounds of that and, if you’re the author, you’ll know your fictive character better than yourself. Then it’s someone else’s turn.
If you don’t have an obliging group to hand, persuade that useful friend we enlisted earlier to act as your interrogator. And if you’re both writers you can take turns.
A tip from experience: don’t try this with your spouse. It’s too easy to forget it’s a game and for both of you to become incensed. Worse, you may stay in character.
“I didn’t realize I was married to Captain Jubb,” my wife said, truculently.
Just in time, I switched roles to Brother Grovel, the penitent friar, and my marriage was saved.
This process is powerful! Never mind your novel. It can transform your life.
What’s your favorite way to create a character for your stories? Tell us!
Dr John Yeoman
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing successful stories in his free 14-part course at Writers' Village: