As Charlotte Brontë famously remarked, reality should “suggest” rather than “dictate” characters. (Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, p. 9)
Real people tend to be boring most of the time. They sit in traffic to and from work; they hunker behind desks day after day or drive the same delivery route yet again; they eat dinner with their family and spend the holidays with their relatives. The big excitement comes on the weekend when they go out to a movie or to a concert or party.
Most real people wouldn’t make good characters in books. Rather than attempting to make characters real, authors would be wise to listen to Ms. Brontë and make them realistic instead.
One thing that helps make a character realistic is a complex personality. This imagined person should have rough edges to go along with his heroic qualities. He should get on some people’s nerves some of the time. He should get cranky when he is tired.
But he should also be generous to a fault or so courageous he’s willing to risk his life without a second thought. And he should be selfless. In other words, when a character is a mixed bag of good traits and bad, he seems like a real person.
A second thing that gives a character the allusion of reality is when she has a good reason for doing what she does. In short, her motives make her actions seem logical and therefore believable.
Cop shows on TV often deal with unmotivated action, but they use it as a way to solve a crime. The murder victim does something that appears random, but that inconsistency triggers a hunt. Why was she in that parking lot at that time of night? There needs to be something that motivated her, and that something will give a clue to the identity of the murderer.
All characters, not just crime victims, need motivation. Why did the gardener lie to his boss about the maid? If his motive isn’t clear, he will come across as the author’s puppet, not as a real person.
The third way an author can make her characters seem real is by giving them emotional reactions to the things that happen. Characters should feel guilty as well as scared, irritated as well as thrilled. They should worry about the test results from the doctor or get nervous before the job interview. And they shouldn’t get over the cause of their emotions too easily.
Characters, whether based on real people or created from scratch in the imagination of the author, are not precisely the same as living, breathing individuals. They are actually more. They face greater challenges, have higher goals, dare nobler deeds. And yet, they must be believable or readers will treat them like cartoons.
Hence, writers must give their characters checkered personalities, motivations for every action, and resulting logical emotional reactions. In this way, larger than life characters can still seem as real as the next door neighbor. Perhaps more so.
Hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!