Think of a book that made you care, that had you so invested in the outcome that you wanted to cry or shout or throw the book when things didn’t go the right way. When you think of that book, what is it that you think about? The setting? The plot? Or the characters?
For me, a good plot keeps me hooked, but a good character makes me feel.
Anne Of Green Gables. The Hunger Games. The gang from Harry Potter.
Would any of these books have such lasting and widespread success if the characters didn’t feel so real to the readers? I don’t think they would. Because these characters feel like someone we know. A friend. An ally. Someone we care about.
So, what is it about these characters that draws us in? What makes them feel so real?
I believe it’s their quirks. Their vulnerability. Their flaws. They have insecurities, they doubt themselves, they feel anger and shame and sorrow. But they also feel happiness and joy – just like a real person would.
Making sure your characters are well-rounded is what brings them to life.
So give them flaws. Make them doubt themselves. Make them feel and think things we’ve all felt and thought before, something the reader can identify with and have an, “I’ve felt that way too,” moment.
Here are some articles to check out if you want to some writing tips:
When editing, character consistency is something that’s easy to overlook, but your character’s behavior and personality need to be true to who you’ve developed them to be. That’s not to say that the character can’t change and evolve over the course of the story, they can, but you need to include the reader in on the character’s inner journey.
For example, a character who is easy going and forgiving can’t suddenly have a wicked vendetta, and vice versa – a vengeful character can’t suddenly become forgiving – not without you showing the reader how the change came about.
I’m guilty of this myself.
Because sure, your MC is a kind, patient, wonderful human being except for that ONE person. And haven’t we all had that person in our life? That someone who just rubs us the wrong way, even if it’s for a reason we can’t quite pinpoint? It’s fine for your character to have that flaw too – you want your characters to be realistic. But just because YOU know that this is your character’s ONE person, it doesn’t mean your readers will know. If this is behavior that’s out of character for them, you need to address it somehow.
There are many ways this can be done, including internal dialogue or in discussion with another character, other characters discussing the MC’s uncharacteristic behavior, maybe even in conversation with that ONE person themselves – have them call the MC out!
Here are some articles to help you keep your character’s behavior and personality consistent:
Write what you know. It’s common advice for writers. But how does it apply to you and your writing?
I recently overheard a fantasy writer remark that they couldn’t “write what they know” because they “create worlds and make things up”. I get what they’re saying, but I don’t really agree with it, because all fiction writers make stuff up, right? And beyond that, all people, writers or not, know and recognize certain things.
I walk hundreds of miles a year. I’ve walked over mountains, through swamps, across beaches and scrubland and pine forests and oak woods and grassy plains . . . and plenty of habitats inbetween.
I’ve had wild boars run across the trail ten feet in front of me, seen a snake mating ball writhing in the grass, and wandered upon a ginormous alligator sunning across the path. I can describe the difference between sweat from stifling heat from that of frigid cold and that of fear. I can tell you that pines just below the timberline on a summer day in the mountains smell like Christmas. Or that the sulfuric stench of a river has briny undertones, while that of a swamp has a ‘meatier’ rotten egg odor.
While walking, I love taking photographs of interesting trees, but I can also use those different trees to help set the mood of a scene. A palm trees with spear-like projections stabbing into the air from it’s trunk, (the kind you can imagine mangled bodies impaled upon), is very different than a majestic oak with sun limned ferns growing atop a sweeping bow. I’ve seen trees with actual thorns, mangroves with spindly witch hands, and trees with gnarled limbs like knotted arthritic fingers.
Pay attention to all of your senses. What sounds do you hear when you go outside? Birds, insects, frogs? Traffic, sirens, jackhammers? What would you feel if those sounds suddenly stop and all you hear in the silence is your own heartbeat and the slosh of your spit as you swallow?
I guess my point is this – writing what you know isn’t just subjects you know about. It’s including sensory descriptions and emotions you can invoke, and for that, you have to get out and actively experience your life. Next time you’re at the mall, pay attention to how the smells change as you go from store to store. If you’re at a restaurant, pay attention to how the noise level varies throughout – is it louder at the bar, when you walk past the table with three kids under five, or near a group of rowdy friends?
I think most of us observe more than we realize during the course of our daily lives, and I know that, as a reader, when a writer includes something – no matter how mundane – that makes me remember an experience of my own, it draws me that much deeper into the story.
Only a small percentage of my fiction is set outdoors, but I do a lot of fieldwork to bring those scenes to life, and what I observe on the trail can apply to other fictional settings as well. (But don’t go seeking out a giant alligator so you can catalogue your body’s fear response 😬. Safety first!)
Writers – what fieldwork do you do for your fiction? And readers – what has an author done to really make you connect with a story?
(All pictures my own, most featured on my Instagram account