One of the goals that any writer hopes to achieve is to make his/her character feel real to the reader. When you find a character that feels real you can connect with them on an emotional level. In turn you become invested in the story when those important connections are made. That character becomes more than a flat caricature. They’ve come alive from the printed page. The point that you actually care what will happen next to them, that keeps you turning the pages.
This is especially true for any main character you write. When we first create our characters we often start with surface traits. Our first thoughts are on physical descriptions or generic labels to describe their characteristics (e.g.: cool, flirty, shy, outgoing, nerdy, mean, etc.). While that’s an ok place to start, it’s good to reflect on what makes that character unique or distinctive. Maybe they have an interesting quark about the way they laugh or maybe your character has a special talent or two. Whether we realize it or not we often draw from real life examples when brainstorming our characters. We even sometimes add in little details and habits from people we’ve observed, giving them added realism. Before you know it your character feels like someone you’ve known. Then you stop and realize why that character feels real; too real. That real-life example is you the writer.
It’s not surprising that a character will be shaped by your own traits, personal experiences, or even belief systems. When coming up with my own characters for my story series, I did not set out to base the characters off my family, friends, co-workers or even myself. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I had a friend read my first three books. Like most writers I was curious to get his thoughts on my stories. Of all the things he could comment on he tells me my books told him a lot about me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by his initial impression but I was. I truly underestimated just how observant my friend is. It was flattering yet unsettling at the time that was the biggest take away he got from my stories. It was from that moment onward that I became more conscious of how my personal life experiences shaped the disposition and choices my characters made affecting the overall direction that the story took.
For those familiar with my story series, Troy, is the main character from all four books. Although I never intended to base a character off myself there were some striking similarities between me and my fictional friend. I will focus on one in particular.
One of the biggest things I shared with my character is that we’re both introverts. In an earlier post “Self-Promotion from an Introvert” I self-identified as an introvert and the unique view on socialization we have compared to extroverts. Truth is, I was an introvert long before I even knew what the word meant. It wasn’t until last year that I read an article on introversion that I had that “aha” moment and realized that article was speaking to me on a fundamental level.
Fittingly enough, I too created Troy (long before I knew what introversion was) to be an introspective character. Years ago, I had conceived a character that was absorbed in the thoughts that ran in his head. A character who was attentive to the nuances of the characters or setting around him. A character that listened before he spoke. A character that was a deep analytical thinker; all the things that could describe me. Thinking on it now, it was no wonder my friend thought the book was based on me!
But the thing is I did not want readers to confuse me with my character. To think that he and I had become one. I cherished my individuality too much to be compared to anyone else let alone a fictional character. For a long time I had the impression that it was a negative thing to have an author’s own life and experiences bleed into the story. As if somehow those things would taint the story. To an extent such concerns are legit. Considering my story is written in a historical setting it is very easy to transfer our modern views of the world into a time period where their views or mores were much different. For example, back in Roman times which my story is set in, slavery was a commonplace practice. Although most people (including myself) find it horrible, I have to remind myself that my characters would have viewed slavery as normal. As you do more research into the period, you’ll find that wasn’t the only cringe-worthy thing going on!
This time around in the editing process though, I’m more conscious about the attitudes and actions that would be more appropriate regarding certain practices in society that were commonplace back then. At the same time, I try to balance those concerns with my desire not to present a cookie-cutter character that blindly goes through the motions of life. Nor would I want to add something that will make me hate my own book. My aim is realism but not to the detriment of alienating impressionable readers. I’ll admit it’s a balancing act I’m still trying to master.
Now I have come to realize that I don’t have to completely “divorce” myself from my work to be a good writer. After all, the characters that drive my story stem from me and my imagination. Part of what I love about writing is creating characters that I can relate to even if they are quite different from me. And that’s ok. By all means I do not intend to create a carbon copy of myself unless I’m writing my autobiography. Otherwise that would be boring. But I hope to create a compelling character with an equally compelling story that I can connect to and in turn readers can connect to.
So those are my thoughts on the topic. I hope to expand on what it means to create a compelling character in a future post so stay tuned. I’ve shared my view on writing characters based loosely on yourself or others you know or have observed from afar. Is that something you find yourself doing? If so you’re not alone.
Speaking of real characters, another character that has come alive from the printed page and has captured my heart is none other than Katniss Everdeen. Stay tuned for my next post which will be dedicated to my thoughts on the book series in the wake of Mockingjay Part 2.