Monday, August 29, 2011

What Makes A Real Character?

What makes a 'real' character?

I read many posts on the topic. They seem to involve check lists, formulas you can plug in and hey, presto, you have a three dimensional, well rounded, believable, likable (even the bad-guys) character.

I know it can not, does not work that way. No formula can replace authenticity. But how do you create authenticity?

Writing is a reflection of reality. It is also a simplification. We want a story to have a clear arc from beginning to end. We want to see how things have changed. Real-life people don't often change much. Lottery winners are a good example. Sudden wealth alters their lives for a short while, then they settle back into old habits. But in stories we expect our lead characters to change. We want the exceptional, not the normal.

Each genre has its own expectations of how real a character must be. Much as I love cozy mysteries, soft science fiction, and fantasy, the characters tend to be flat. This doesn't mean we don't like them, or loathe them, only that we usually know right up front if they are the good guys or the bad guys. No grey areas. We learn a few quirks and we're done. In a series it gets complicated. The author has to keep adding traits and life-history, leaving us to wonder why we didn't know about them earlier on. Literary fiction is more like life. We can see the complexities of human nature more realistically portrayed.

 When you step back and think about a day -- even an hour in your life, how many fleeting moods, random thoughts, odd memories, half-completed actions are there? Far too many to ever account for. But they reflect the prism of your personality.

I want my characters to have those facets.

No one is without moments of weakness, and no one is always weak. No one speaks uniformly good or ill or anyone or anything, unless they are speaking from hate or prejudice.

Normal people like and dislike aspects of people and life. A real teacher will complain of annoying students while also glorying in the good ones. My characters should be real enough to do the same.

What's important is that behind the specific attributes of a character, we can clearly see their core nature. Speaking ill of a bad person is consistent with a 'good' character. If they find they made a bad judgement they will try to rectify it. But they will still make occasional bad judgements. We all do.

To label a character good or bad, then assign a few traits or habits to flesh them out doesn't create a person, only a stereotype with garnish. But give that character too much reality, and the reader might become confused.

So, let the reader know how you feel about the character. Do you like them? Why? Choose a few aspects of their nature to focus on. Don't be afraid to show them as inconsistent. When you do, though, be sure to refocus on why that seems inconsistent -- get back to the core.

An example: if my enthusiastic teacher dislikes a student, that seems inconsistent. But if she says the student is a trouble maker, then we understand that it's the student who's the problem, not the teacher. She's a real person, just like you and me, one who reacts to stimuli, and not an inert mass of attributes selected from a check list.

Real characters, like real people, are complex. As a writer, we have to give a sense of that complexity in a simplified form. Not an easy task.

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