On Writing "Real" Characters

Photo credit: Gene Wilburn on Flickr
Many months ago I read The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen (review here) and upon completing it, I was hit with a revelation—your point of view character doesn’t have to reveal everything, he can tell the story however he’d like to. I know that doesn’t sound like a particularly stunning revelation—and it’s not like I didn’t know that before, but I’d never seen it executed so well in a first person POV novel, and it made me start to think.

You see, what I really liked about The False Prince was that Sage, the protagonist and POV character, wasn’t entirely honest with the readers about both large and small reveals. He skipped over events and failed to mention specific information, not because he didn’t know it, but because he didn’t want to reveal that information to the readers. The result was rather fascinating, because it felt like Jennifer Nielsen wasn’t writing the story—Sage was, and he was writing it the way he wanted to, rather than the way the author was dictating, and I think for writers that is a result that is highly desirable.

We often talk about character development and getting to know our characters and writing multi-faceted characters with flaws and fears like the rest of us, but in the end it all comes down to this: do your characters feel real or do they feel like characters?

Now I’m not saying it’s a terrible thing if your characters feel like characters, rather than 100% I-might-run-into-this-person-on-the-street-real. There are plenty of characters from successful books that are good, interesting characters that people want to read about, but don’t necessarily feel like you could possibly run into said character on the street. 

Take Voldemort, for example—as far as villains go, I think Voldemort proved to be an interesting, deep (and deplorable) antagonist, and he certainly was strong enough to remain an opposing foe throughout the course of seven novels. Despite that, I’m not sure I would say that he was so incredibly realistic that I could imagine him to be a real person living on Earth. It’s not a bad thing—it’s just where the readers’ suspension of disbelief comes into play.

But then I read novels like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green where the characters are so vibrant, quirky and multi-faceted that they feel like they could truly be real teenagers living among us. Like The Fault in Our Stars isn’t a novel at all, but Hazel Grace’s memoir. The characters feel real.

There isn’t a magical button you can press or sentence you can write to automatically make your characters entirely realistic—it’s usually a combination of a particularly strong voice, realistic thoughts and decisions (and not always good ones) and actual flaws, fears and other humanizing factors. Once accomplished, however, it’s an effect that can truly make your characters stand out and remain memorable, even long after your readers have put away your story and started something else.

Have you ever encountered a character that felt real? What character was it, and how do you think that effect was achieved?


Heidi Erikson said...

This is actually something I've been considering for a long time. I have a protagonist/ POV character who is a thirteen-going-on-fourteen girl and she has some problems like being ashamed of her childhood (I know, she's still in her childhood, but come on, she is fourteen. She thinks she's an adult), her current not-so-wealthy-life, not having friends at school, etc. It makes sense that she would lie a lot, I've already made her tell a few lies when not needed, but God! i have problems making them big enough for the story to make twist and turns but still make them obvious so the reader will know that she is lying, and that they can't really trust her.

I was also inspired by Atonement by Ian McEwan, which ending (spoiler alert) turns out to be a big lie by the protagonist and instead of being a kind of happy ending, it's just plain sadsadSAD.

Now, do you think you have any tips or advice? It would really help.

(and I would like to apologize for any grammar mistakes or weird sentences, english is not my first language and since I'm a writer, I'm very concerned about that)

Ava Jae said...

Well firstly, I didn't notice any glaring grammar mistakes or weird sentences, and truth be told I would have had no idea English wasn't your first language had you not mentioned it, so I wouldn't worry about that. It seems you have a pretty good grasp on the language. :)

Any tips I might share with you depends...are you still first drafting or are you working on a later draft? If you're in a first draft, I would worry less about balancing the lies so that readers can recognize them as lies and just focus on getting the story written to the best of your ability. After you have the first draft written, you can go back and tweak the lies so that they're obvious enough that the readers will learn not to trust your protagonist. Those are the kind of details, however, that I usually find are best to think about after the first draft is finished.

Heidi said...

I will take that grammar thing as a huge compliment, it's a bit nerve wracking to write at these sites for aspiring authors and not being sure is you are just gibbering.

Secondly, I'm on my second-ish draft. I haven't gotten so far that I've reached the end, but i have been re-writing the beginning and middle for a while now.

I am a little worried that I will just confuse the reader, like they won't understand that the protagonist is lying, they are just bothered with getting mixed messages and information that won't agree with the bigger picture.

Ava Jae said...

Ok, I don't know if you have any beta readers lined up, but when you aren't sure about how a certain part of your WIP will resonate with readers, beta readers are hugely helpful. Once you've finished your second draft and you feel comfortable sharing it with others, I'd suggest you show it to a couple of beta readers and see what they think. They'll certainly be able to tell you whether or not they were confused and should be able to point you to sections that need more work. :)

Heidi said...

I will definitely gather some beta readers when I'm ready, and then force them to be honest and critical.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write such long and sharp answers, you are extremely helpful and i appreciate it! :)

Ava Jae said...

Happy to help, Heidi! Best of luck with your WIP!

Emily Mead said...

Very interesting...I'd never thought of it like that! Now I'm going to have to read The False Prince. And think about whether my characters are telling their own story...

I agree with you about The Fault in Our Stars, by the way. One of my favourite books just because the characters are so realistic.

I have a question (not to do with this): how do you know when to shelve a novel? This has been bothering me quite a bit lately, and I was wondering whether you'd written a post or just had some words of advice :)

Ava Jae said...

Firstly, I completely agree about The Fault in Our Stars--the characters are truly what made the book so memorable to me. And I do hope you read The False Prince--it's one of those novels I read very quickly because I couldn't put it down.

As for your question about shelving novels--interestingly when I originally saw your question I thought oh yes, I've answered that, but looking back at my blog posts, I've realized that I haven't quite written about the when aspect of shelving novels. So.

For now I'll point you to "When Your Novel Isn't the One" which talks about the actual shelving of the novel, but I'll be answering your question on the when part very soon. :)

Emily Mead said...

Thanks for that :) I have great difficulty letting a novel go, because I'm not sure if I should or not.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you! I really do mean it when I say I love when readers ask questions or offer suggestions that I can post about. :)

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...