Sunday, October 28, 2012

Writing Real Characters

Several years ago at our writers group, one of the other people suggested an action for one of our characters. Larry and I both immediately said, “Oh, but she’d never do anything like that. It would be completely out of character.”

The other person laughed and said, “You talk about your characters as if they were real people.”

Larry and I looked at each other. Then I replied, “Of course, they’re real. They have to be. How can we expect our readers to believe the people in our stories are real if we don’t?”

So, how do we write characters who step off the page as believable people you might want as friends?

1.      Base Them on Friends
The protagonist in our mysteries Murder… They Wrote and Murder in Paradise, AgapĂ© Jones, is based on a fellow we met at the 2005 Maui Writers Conference. We only talked to him for about ten minutes, but as we walked away, I said to Larry, “We have to write that guy!”

The real person has since become a good friend, and every time we talk to him, we’re amazed at how our own stories about our character seem to mirror his real life. We write AgapĂ© with our friend’s mannerisms, only exaggerated a bit.

Agape’s mother, Lovey, is based on another friend, Lovie Cooper. You can read about her on our website. To write her, all I had to do was close my eyes and ask, “What would Lovie say?”

2.      Cast Your Characters
We sometimes pretend that a favorite actor is playing the part. We try to capture their voice, their appearance, their mannerisms. We imitate their speech patterns. We determine what makes them unusual and unique. Then we write those characteristics into our character.

I had just started writing “Finding Love in Paradise” in the anthology Directions of Love. I had described Jason and had a pretty good idea of who he was. Then I stumbled upon the TV show The Mentalist and saw Tim Kang (Kimball Cho). I turned to Larry and said, “That’s Jason.” From then on, I knew exactly what the character was like.

3.      People Watch
We look at people wherever we go. We note specific ‘types,’ including their dress and mannerisms.

We listen to conversations and remember the speech patterns. (No, we don’t eavesdrop on the actual conversations, but we mentally note unusual sounds and word choices.) We’ve noticed that older people’s rhythms and vocabularies differ from younger ones. Then we incorporate some of the special and unusual ones into our characters.

4.      Be Consistent
We determine how our character will behave, and then keep their basic responses the same throughout the narrative. Characters must change or there is no story, but the easy-going person generally stays flexible and positive. The basic nature of a rigid one shouldn’t change except with struggle. The flighty person doesn’t suddenly morph into the detailed one, etc.

5.      Write From Your Own Experience
I began the prologue for “Finding Love in Paradise” in the anthology Directions of Love with the story of a young woman alone in a typhoon in Japan. She was in the penthouse of a high-rise apartment alone. I knew everything she was feeling because I had lived that very same experience while living in Japan.

Larry was at work and I was at home when a huge typhoon hit our area. We lived on the fifteenth floor at the top of a mountain. The wind whipped around the building, and I feared that the windows would blow out at any moment. Debris swirled past and threatened to smash the twelve-foot-high curved glass wall of the living room.

I closed the heavy drapes and hunkered down for the duration. Unlike Kimi’s husband in the story, Larry was able to call from time to time to check on me and let me know he was okay. Having experienced the range of emotions in the identical situation allowed me to give Kimi a sense of reality.

6.      Vary The Characters
I have a friend who only writes upbeat characters—all of them! Since that is her basic nature, it’s easiest for her to go to the upbeat emotions.

But people are all different!

We try to to include characters with contrasting personalities. It helps that the two of us write together. Larry is the organized, easy-going, funny one. I am the touchy-feely one. We sometimes pick different characters to write based on which one of us understands the character better.

When I wrote Ghost Writer, my first solo work, one of the most delicious parts was crafting the old, grouchy curmudgeon in contrast to the young, hip, somewhat irreverent young woman. Their speech patterns were opposite as were their personalities. In no way could the two characters be confused, even without dialogue tags.

7.      Let The Characters Tell You Who They Are
Larry had a terrible time at first when our characters suddenly decided to do something unexpected or simply refused to do what we wanted. Learning to listen to the characters and allow them to reveal their true personas was not easy for a compulsive outliner with an engineering background. He was accustomed to managing every detail. But sometimes our characters don’t cooperate.

I remember talking to our friend, Marilyn Meredith, about this. She told us about one book she was writing where she’d decided who the perpetrator of the crime was before she started. But halfway through the book, she realized her intended criminal just didn’t have the personality to commit the crime. So she had to look elsewhere.

In the end, listening to the characters themselves makes a story richer.

Are our characters real? You bet they are—at least to us, and hopefully to our readers as well.

Lorna Collins is the author of eight published books. She sometimes writes with her husband, Larry K. Collins, sometimes collaborates  with others on anthologies, and occasionally writes alone. Find out more about her at her website: 


jrlindermuth said...

Great suggestions, Lorna. I like to give my characters a chance to tell what they're like. Often they reflect many of your suggestions.
One of my early mentors built his characters based on astrology. I suspect this may be one of Sunny's techniques as well.

D.R. Ransdell said...

Lorna, great advice. In fact, my characters are "real" people too. And they're based on real people. Most of my friends realize that they might wind up in a story too even though I disguise them.

For example, my first murder mystery protagonist is a mariachi player; I've been playing in a group for the last twenty years. Andy, my fictional characters, is loosely based on one of the guys I've played with the longest. (Poor guy! But thank goodness, I don't think he'll recognize himself in print!

Lorna Collins - Author said...

I have a sweatshirt that says: Careful or you'll end up in my next novel. Fair warning!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good post. I don't do some of the things you two do, but I do borrow a lot from real people. Although, I can tell you that to me, my characters are all real people.

William Doonan said...

Good points, Lorna. I tell people that if they read all my books, I'll promise to name a future murder victim after them.

marja said...

All very good tips! My characters are very real to me, too. It adds an extra element of fun when writing their stories.
Marja McGraw

Beryl Reichenberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beryl Reichenberg said...

Good comments, Loma. But when I write my stories for young children, I look at character development a bit different. Most of my characters are animals that often retain the attributes of that animal and may also have human characteristics.

For example, the Raccoon in my story "The Mysterious Case of the Missing Birthday Cake" is persistent, fearless and clever, much like a real raccoon. While the mouse is smaller, shyer and more willing to give up the hunt once she realizes how big the thief might be.

Jack the Rabbit in "Ants on a Log" was based on my son and thus has many of his characteristics. His mother, of course, is based on me.

Children's books are usually shorter than adult books. The characters are more basic and limited. It is hard to develop much in the way of character in a traditional 32 page, 1000-word picture book. Of course, pictures may add additional elements that flush out character. Even books for older children are limited in page number and word count. Here, though there is some room for many of the elements in your post. Beryl