One of the most important processes while writing a story is creating realistic characters. Characters can sink or carry a book, and what readers often complain about is a story with “cardboard cut-out” characters. There is a very simple way to do this: from the start, think of them as real people and not characters. By thinking of them as “humans” (whether they’re elves, dwarves, werewolves, etc.), we avoid the cartoon “cut-out” character that lacks dimension. There are certain things to keep in mind while writing a character:
1. Humans always have goals whether they know it or not. Some goals are subconscious, but everyone is looking to attain something (fame, money, love, stability, a material goal). People always have short-term and long-term goals, and the ultimate goal humans move towards is happiness/contentment. The arc of your story should focus on at least one but probably several of these goals. Keep in mind that other characters (even side/minor characters should have goals of their own, which can be incorporated into subplots). Some questions to ask: What will make my character happy now? Do they know what they want? What will make them happy in the future? How does the conflict affect their goals and how do they feel about it? This brings me to my next point—
2. Humans have more than two emotions. When I have come across “cut-out” characters, one of the issues I noticed was that the characters tended to either be in love or angry for 90% of the book. While love and anger are two rather large emotions, people also experience joy, sorrow, confusion, apathy, panic, frustration. To keep a character’s emotions from seeming hollow, it’s important to keep in mind why the character feels this way. What circumstances in their lives have led to them feeling this way? Does a character constantly doubt themselves because they were bullied by a classmate or micromanaged by a family member? Your readers don’t need to know every detail of their lives, but you should at least have an idea of their back story. If you are uncertain about that back story, try working backwards. What could have happened to make them react that way? One thing you often hear from therapists is that anger is really the manifestation of hurt, frustration, or fear. Knowing which one your character is experiencing can allow you to create a more nuanced portrayal of their emotions and stay away from the stereotype of the raging alpha male/female without a cause. If you find yourself struggling to think of emotions, I would suggest googling “emotional thesaurus” for more help.
3. Body language is key to emotional characterizations and creates a greater depth of character. We all have a “tell” when we’re upset or angry. Think about when you’re upset, what do you do? Do your lips twitch? Do you get hot or itchy? Instead of simply having a character express that they are mad or upset or having the narrative voice say it, show it. Body language can be a hard thing to master because we do it automatically. People watching can be the best way to figure this out. Out in public how do they act? More importantly, how do they act in private when their guard is down? Some characters have nervous habits that can set them apart from others, and once you have established that a character does this when they feel a certain way, the reader will automatically know they are nervous/scared/upset. Pay attention to what you do when you’re experiencing different emotions. Even describing how a character smiles or how their brows move adds complexity to their portrayal. For more help with this, I would check a book on body language out from the library or study people without them knowing (that way they act natural). Just keep in mind that not everyone acts the same and some people purposely mask their body language.
Some of this advice my seem daunting and leave you asking, “How am I supposed to know what my character feels or why they act a certain way?” Certain characters reveal themselves immediately while others must be drawn from the shadows. If your character has gone into hiding, some things you can do to get to know them better are: fill-out character info sheets, write random scenes using prompts to see how your character reacts outside the story, build a Pinterest inspiration board for them, or meditate on them. An oddly helpful way to do this is to imagine them before going to sleep. Often dreams are the best way to draw them out. Just remember, your characters are people too and will react as such, so give them room to be human beings and express themselves.
Kara Jorgensen is an author of fiction and professional student from New Jersey who will probably die slumped over a Victorian novel. An anachronistic oddball from birth, she has always had an obsession with the Victorian era, especially the 1890s. Midway through a dissection in a college anatomy class, Kara realized her true passion was writing and decided to marry her love of literature and science through science fiction or, more specifically, steampunk. She has published two historical-fantasy novels, The Earl of Brass and The Winter Garden, and plans to release her third, The Earl and the Artificer, in 2016. You can find her at: