What Makes a Character Real?

dogSo often we read stories that tell us what a character looks like.       Ex:  She had beautiful brown eyes and cascading black hair.   Okay.    Half the world’s population has dark hair and brown eyes.  Today alone, we’ve probably walked by a dozen people with those same attributes and never even noticed.   …beautiful brown eyes, blah, blah, blah...  In short, snooze worthy.  There is nothing in that sentence that makes the reader relate to the character.  Why? Because it takes more than a description to bring a character come to life.

It’s funny – the things you remember…

When I was a little girl, I would watch my mother do the laundry.  She’d sit by the pile of clothes and start folding them and occasionally, if she noticed a small hole in a pair of underwear, she’d morph into the Hulk and rip the garment apart.  It didn’t matter if that particular pair of panties was your favorite.  Holey undies were as good as gone.

Later, I would learn that because my mother’s family was so poor, she was forced to wear two pairs of panties at once – you see, each pair of panties had holes in different places – but together, they did the job of one. When you know the backstory, my mother’s idiosyncrasy (turning into the hulk & shredding undies) doesn’t seem quite so bazaar.  Her ruthless destruction had a purpose – her children would never know what it was to be embarrassed by their undergarments.

As writers, we are remiss if we fail to discover what makes our characters tick.  Just like my mother, a character’s present is directly related to their past.  We should be as familiar with our characters’ backstories as we are with our own.  It’s the backstories that help shape to the characters.

Developing believable characters: 

We’ve all read the same advice:  show don’t tell.  It sounds simple enough but the truth is this:  It is harder work to show than it is to tell – that’s why we sometimes find ourselves taking the easy way out.  He was furious. When –  He stalked out of the room, nearly slamming the door off its hinges – shows his feelings.

Being familiar with a character’s backstory can answer a lot of developmental questions.  Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy, is an example of this.   Her father’s death, her mother’s subsequent depression, the lack of economic security – these are all things that shaped her character.  The events and circumstances help explain Katniss’ actions/reactions.

Just as in real life, characters need to react realistically.  Let’s say I’m writing about a private investigator and maybe he always answers the door with his gun drawn.  If I know his backstory, then I understand that he’s learned to be cautious  because of a failed attempt on his life.  This knowledge might lead me to the fact that he has developed an acidic stomach and eats antacids like candy.  Because he finds stakeouts to be quite boring, he smokes – a lot.   Some of these details may need to be woven into the fabric of the story.  Others may not.   The important thing to remember is this:  These little actions/characteristics add a “real life” feel to our characters.




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