Creating Realistic Characters: Tips and Resources

Writing

In fantasy novels, sometimes the unique world and setting can take center stage. Other times, the intricate plot, where the entire world hangs in the balance, receives primary focus. However, a novel will truly come to life when you know your characters and convey them in a manner that engages the reader. Reams of books have been written on characterization alone, and many good systems and methods of character development exist. So this won’t be an attempt to comprehensively cover the subject or even put forth a suggested method, but to share a few tips and resources that may help you dig deeper into your characters and bring them to life on the page.

  • Be a student of people in real life. Observe conversations, personalities, patterns of behavior and conflict, body language, mannerisms, and so forth. All these will give you a wealth of information to draw from in order to realistically depict characters and their emotions and interactions.
  • Make use of personality systems to gain insight on various personality types (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, etc) and use that as a springboard for working with your characters and understanding how different people approach the same situations.
  • Write what you know and what you don’t know. Don’t make a character another version of you–that’s not the truest sense of writing what you know. He or she should be a distinct, unique individual, with his or her own thought patterns, dreams, desires, fears, and quirks. However, you can pull from what you have experienced to make this unique individual more real. Your village may not have been destroyed in a flood, but perhaps you’ve had nightmares of tsumanis, and you recall the feelings of terror and hopelessness you experienced seeing that wall of water coming toward you. Pull from emotional reality you know to enliven your characters, but filter it through their unique personality and history, not your own.
  • Spend time with your characters, apart from the novel. Dialogue with them, interview them, journal from their POV. Get inside their skin and see what is revealed. You should know their greatest fears and deepest desires, the key moments in their history that have shaped them, the cultural forces that mold their perception, and so on. You don’t necessarily need to fill out a gigantic character worksheet, you simply need to know them–their goals, their motivations, and the sources of conflict within and without.
  • Along those lines, know the lie your character believes. What false perception is central to their reality, and how does it shape their actions? This gives excellent potential for conflict and deeper insight into your character.

A few books on character development:
Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress
Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins
Character Creation for the Plot-first Novelist by Jeff Gerke (This is both software, a system, and a book. I’ve never used this one, as I’m a character-first novelist. However, I’ve heard good things from those who find character creation more challenging, so if you’re a plot-first writer, this may be the book for you.)

A few online resources on character development:
Character Arcs – Brandilyn Collins, suspense novelist (links at the bottom of each post will take you to the next part of the series)
Character Empathy – Brandilyn Collins, suspense novelist (links at the bottom of each post will take you to the next part of the series)
Characterization – Dave Long, editor at Bethany House (links at the bottom of each post will take you to the next part of the series)
Character Fractaling System – Jay Lauser, writer and creator of Holy Worlds Forum (If you’re interested in a fairly comprehensive approach, you may want to check this out. I haven’t used it nor had time to really review it, but from a brief glance looks like it could be useful, especially if you’re still in search of a method for character development.)

Questions, thoughts, or helpful tips? Please share!

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