Writing characters that feel both interesting enough to carry an entire book but realistic enough to be believable is a tightrope act. You have to walk the fine line between using real material and creating dramatic tension–-and it’s all too easy to inspire either boredom or disbelief in your readers. Here are some tips to keep in mind when trying to strike that balance.
Think about what your characters want.
First of all, one of the central tenets of plot is conflict. Your characters should desire something, a situation which should create that conflict and provide the friction that drives your plot. Whatever your main character desires––whether he’s on a quest to learn something, or wants to attain something, or even to cover something up––needs to feel believable and true to his, well, character.
Mine their histories.
This might take diving even deeper into your characters’ psyches. Many writers try writing pages and pages of backstory for every character, even minor ones, that won’t ever see the light of day. Write about their childhoods, their family vacations, the worst things they’ve ever done, the ones that got away. This exercise can help you discover the connections between characters and the sources of their desires and conflicts, making your story much richer.
But don’t mistake them for real.
Of course, it takes a healthy dollop of human psychology. Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” In other words, characters are not living, breathing “people you get to hang out with.” They are creations of your mind, inspired by real life and cultivated by your hand. They are figments of your imagination, and readers can tell when you let those figments get out of hand. Beginning students of writing often say thing like, “I tried to write the story one way, but then my character kept telling me to do something different so finally I gave in and listened to her.” It can be a good thing to change courses in the middle of writing a story, but exercise authorial control rather than treating it like a wayward game of make-believe in order to keep the story tight, believable, and compelling. If you don’t believe in yourself as an author, your reader won’t.
Get off your soapbox.
On the other hand, you don’t want to exercise so much authorial control that your readers can tell your characters are just a mouthpiece for your beliefs. It helps to think of some of your characters as composites of people you know, people who might not agree with you about the issues or themes your book raises, and allow them to air those conflicting viewpoints. Readers don’t like being lectured to—they appreciate honest, nuanced dialogues, whether explicit or implicit, that allow them to formulate their own opinions.
Write like your parents are dead.
Finally, one of the main barriers to creating compelling characters is the fear of offending or betraying the real people who inspired your story’s characters, or plot, or theme. But try to leave those concerns to the second draft. Write like no one’s feelings are at stake, and like this draft will never make it to print. You never know how much will change between the first draft and the final one, so don’t miss out on using all the excellent material life—maybe in the form of your dysfunctional upbringing––has given you.