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.




My Muse Moves in Mysterious Ways

Yopps CemetaryYopp’s Meeting House is the oldest church in my town.  It is also the site of the only segregated cemetery in our little community.  It should come as no surprise that the “white” section covers about three-quarters of the cemetery.  It encompasses the front of the property,wraps around to the right and extends to the back.  The “black” section is located in the left rear corner.   It’s covered with shade trees and it’s the only place in the cemetery where you can hear the creek.

As I walked through the cemetery, I stopped periodically to read the headstones. 100_1118I found Charlotte in the segregated section.  She was about born in 1895 and died in 1905.  My first thought was to wonder what had happened to her. Had she been sick?  Was she the victim of a tragic accident?  My thoughts moved from how she died to how she lived…  I wondered about the little girl she must have been.  How did she fill her days?  Did she have a favorite doll?  Was she scared of the dark?  In my mind’s eye, I could see her, wearing a light blue dress, chasing a butterfly across a field, her laughter ringing in the air.


100_1125In the “white” section, I found E.A.R.’s headstone. Surrounded by markers much more eloquent, this stone squeezed at my heart.  Who was E?  Male or female?  What was he/she like?  I wondered at the family’s circumstances, marking their loved one’s grave with such a humble stone.  I imagined an old man, bent from long days toiling in the sun, lovingly preparing a marker for his spouse.

Cemeteries aren’t usually on my list of places to visit.  In fact, the only reason I stopped by today was to get pictures of tombstones.  My family is working on our Halloween decorations and part of our front yard will be a cemetery, complete with the Grim Reaper and an open coffin.  (I know, you’re breathing a sigh of relief that we aren’t neighbors!)   Anyway – there I was, intent on getting pictures of various stones when my muse did her thing…  Grave markers became people and those people had stories to tell!

So, where were you when inspiration struck?