Do These Characters Seem Real to You? Or Are They More Like Robots?

Posted: April 20, 2015 in Reflections, Writing
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The main fear of every fiction writer is whether or not they’re telling a good story, usually meaning they hope they have an interesting story or they’re telling it in the best way possible. After that those, there’s another fear that is just as important and just as scary: you fear your characters aren’t relatable, that they don’t feel real to the reader. The last thing any author wants to read in a review is that the characters seemed “artificial” or “their actions and words felt forced” or instead of seeming like real people, they were “more like robots.”

Unless all or most of your characters are actually robots, of course. Then those reviews might actually be compliments.

But in most other situations, you want to avoid getting these sort of reviews, and there are a number of ways to do that. One is to fill out a full character bio for each of your characters, even if you don’t plan on using everything on that bio in the story. I’m talking full educational history, childhood experiences and traumas, hobbies, likes and dislikes, dirty little secrets, all that good stuff. Having a full picture of your character can help you bring them to life. You can tell a lot about a person just by knowing the full story about them, and you can do the same by knowing everything about your characters, getting in their heads and figuring out everything from reactions to certain situations to their decision-making processes.

Some of these involve writing, which I think adds to the fun.

One of the best parts of some of these is you get to write them out. If you’re one of those types who write a certain amount of words a day, this may help fill it out on a bad day.

Another thing you can do, if you’re wondering if something your character says or does seems believable or not, is to do what I call split-mind writing. I forget where I got this (it might have been a Stephen King novel), but it’s a pretty interesting way to work out problems, if rather schizophrenic. What you do is take a piece of paper, and pretend to have a conversation with someone on that piece of paper. Basically it’s a game of question-and-answer where you bounce ideas off of the person you’re writing to, see if you can work out what’s bothering you about your character and find a solution through this process.

There’s also acting it out, which is as the name implies (and with the perfect partner, is as fun as it sounds). If you have someone to act it out with, fill the in on a scenario in the story and act it out. If you or your partner’s reactions and words are different than what you’d expect or thought might happen, examine why. There might be something in that difference that can help you in your work.

A fourth one, and one that I feel is always worth a try, is to look at your favorite characters in literature. Examine them and ask yourself why those characters feel so real to you, or what about these characters that you identified with. Often we’re inspired by these sort of characters and the stories they’re in. We want to write stories that are just as inspirational as those ones that inspired us. Going back and figuring out why can be very helpful with putting those same qualities into your stories.

And of course, there’s my favorite option: would I do that in the same situation? I find asking myself this sort of question of myself actually helps. Often our characters have a bit of ourselves in them (as they should, seeing as we created them). Asking if we would do the same thing as them, and then exploring the answer, may help you make these characters seem real. After all, if you consider yourself at least fifty-percent normal and your reactions too, then maybe those thoughts and reactions should apply to your characters as well.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of thinking and puzzling it out.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of thinking and puzzling it out.

While making characters seem real to your audience can seem daunting, it’s not impossible to do. We all start out having trouble making our characters seem real, but with time we improve, make them real not just to us, but to our readers. And part of that is just asking a question: why or why does this character not work? The answers you get can be the key to writing something–and maybe even someone–truly awesome.

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