Is there any better feeling than writing a character who seems to come to life on their own?
For me, it is one of the best things about writing fiction.
And its one of the most tedious things in writing to have a character who seems to be dragged along by the plot, with no substance and no initiative.
Characters who come alive hook an audience almost instantly. If they feel real, act in a believable way, and have empathetic traits, then the readers are practically knocked over by their power.
All fiction writers then, if they care about their craft, aim to write these sorts of characters.
And yet it isn’t such an easy thing to do.
The big problem that faces all writers is that a character is just words on a page. Nothing more.
How can you make mere symbols on a page represent a living, breathing person in all their virtues and flaws?
If a writer doesn’t have a grip on this delicate art, then he’s likely to write characters that seem to be driven by the plot, with no goals of their own and no character besides, “what have to do what the plot tells us to do!”
So boring… no thanks…
The simplest way to do it?
There are many different techniques and tactics you can employ to make your characters seem more realistic and organic, but what I’ll talk about today is one of my favorites.
It’s simply to create a moment where you show the audience who your character really is.
Because what a lot of writers don’t understand is that readers will not take you seriously if you have description after description, telling the reader how clever, funny, or wise your character is.
They’ll only start to take you seriously when you demonstrate it.
How does that work?
Well, if you are involved in selling or marketing, then you’ve likely heard that demonstration is the most powerful selling tool there is.
The fact is a salesman can blather on and on about his product, but when he demonstrates how much better his vacuum cleaner is by actually using it on the customer’s carpet, he’s done what 10 full-length sales talks could never do.
And, with your story, you better believe you are selling.
You are selling your readers or your audience on your characters.
And therefore, demonstration remains the best way to show your readers who your character really is.
A crisis moment
In everyday life, we don’t have to worry much about who we really are. Most of the time.
We get to go to work, goof around, chat with friends, have dinner at home, watch TV, whatever.
But it’s when bad stuff happens that we see our true characters.
If, for example, you show up to work one day and there’s a box on your desk with a written letter from the boss saying that your service is no longer needed, and you have to pack your things up by 1:00.
That’s when we REALLY get to see who you are.
Do you meekly begin packing your stationary away into the box, with tears in your eyes as you do it as you imagine telling your kids you lost your job…
Or do you snatch the letter and begin marching for the boss’s office, ready to let him know what you think of him?
The thing is these two characters may have seen very much the same until this crisis point. It’s only when the pressure is on that their real personality traits begin to surface.
Seeing it in action for myself
I’ll never forget a special moment I had when I was younger when I discovered this rule for myself.
I was writing a scene where my hero was out in the woods with his training buddies. He was a boy, training to be a knight, along with all his friends.
This test involved them hunting for game out in the woods. So far so good, but then, they were attacked.
The scenario was that my hero’s rival was seen running from an enemy and got hit by an arrow and fell down a steep cliff into a stream below. If my hero wanted to save himself, he would have fled.
Instead, I watched in awe as I wrote as my hero climbed down the cliff to the stream to attempt to save the boy who had been attacked, even though they were rivals.
Now that I am a bit older and wiser, I can see that’s a fairly common situation in a lot of stories, but for me at the time, it felt so organic. The reason it felt that way was because I saw who my character really was.
He’d risk his life to save a person he didn’t like because it was the right thing to do.
Pay attention to movies
Because films have a lot less space to work with, they have to really make sure that the audience understands their characters and empathizes with them as soon as possible.
That means that the best examples of these character demonstrations can often be seen in films.
In fact, the screenwriting book, “Save the Cat,” is actually named after the idea that early on the film you should show your protagonist doing something good, like saving a cat, to help the audience empathize with them.
What we are talking about is a bit broader.
We want to show our readers what our characters are really like. Are they brave, or a coward? Are they wise, or foolish? Are they impulsive, or deliberate?
What works far better than telling us about these traits, is to show us these traits in action.
Instead of saying, “Tom was a hard-working guy, but whenever he saw a pretty face, he’d lose all his focus,” you could instead demonstrate this by having Tom walking to work.
He’s late. He knows he has to give a presentation soon. Then a beautiful girl with long dark hair walks passed him and smiles. Tom stops, turns back, and wonders, ‘should I say something to her?’ He then turns around, in the opposite direction to work, and calls out to the woman, “Hey I think you dropped something,” just to get a conversation started.
Reversal of this technique
The problem, of course, is that it takes a lot more work to show a trait than to tell it. To be honest, sometimes telling can be a little easier, but it depends on the context.
If this is a trait that is integral to the character, that’s a big part of the plot and his character arc, then often it is better to show it.
Showing us what the character is like feels so much more realistic because we human beings like to pick things up via subtext and subtlety rather than being told bluntly.
I talk about this concept more in-depth in my guide, the Seven Deadly Assumptions of Writing Fiction.
Using this technique also has the added benefit of ramping up the tension. For example, say you have a character who describes himself as kind. Everyone around him speaks of how considerate he is, and how polite he is.
Then, on the way home from the bar late at night, he encounters a homeless man, and ridicules him for his poverty and then spits on him before he walks away, whistling into the night.
Obviously, this is not a kind person. The tension is increased dramatically by the fact that everyone in this character’s life, including himself, thinks that he’s kind.
That’s why unreliable narrators can be so interesting to an audience. Constantly we’re on edge trying to work out the truth and working off the subtext of the situations that are presented to us.
The way to use this technique to create realistic characters is simple.
First, you identify a value that you want to show in your character. Is it bravery? Generosity? Intelligence? Whatever it is, you decide.
Then what you do from there is design a situation that’ll bring this trait to the surface.
It doesn’t have to be a crisis like an earthquake, but something that’ll put the character in a position where they have a choice.
Say, for example, you have a heroine who doesn’t want to be restricted by marriage and instead wants to pursue her dream of running her own business.
She could talk for days about how that’s what she wants, but we won’t believe her unless she ends up turning down a handsome, charming man when he proposes to her, because she knows that he wants a traditional wife whereas she wants to be free to pursue her career.
A perfect man proposing to her in a romantic setting is a great situation to prove to herself and the audience what her values really are.
I remember a scene from the Thin Red Line where a group of soldiers are under heavy fire.
A character whose previously been shown as cold and uncaring sees that another man is caught out in the open, with a horrible injury. His guts are spilling out of his body.
He’s screaming, begging for help, while bullets rain down all around him.
This previously cold and uncaring character climbs out of the trench and runs over to the injured man and attempts to save his life.
Obviously then, this man does actually care about his soldiers, and is willing to risk his own life for them.
So, the way is simple. Find the value you want to demonstrate in your character and then create a situation that demonstrates this. That’s how you creat realistic characters without having to worry too much.
The Seven Deadly Assumptions
If you want to create more believable characters, then I have a free resource that could be useful to you.
It’s called the Seven Deadly Assumptions of Writing Fiction, and it’s a free guide about dangerous ideas that hold writers back.
You can download it for free here. It usually retails for $2.99 on Amazon.
While the guide focuses on a lot of things, with the information in it, you will have the ability to write characters who are far more believable.
Dealing with Assumption #1 and Assumption #2 especially will help you write better characters.
Thanks for reading.
Originally published at www.storykation.com on January 2, 2019.