Reading a great book is like falling in love. You meet an interesting new character, and over time they show you their weaknesses and flaws and truths and lies, becoming not just a character but someone you know and care for. A real person.
It’s interesting that we spend so much time trying to create real people in fiction. We writers are real. We live, we breathe, we write—but somehow, the characters that emerge from our minds aren’t always so real, at least not at first. It takes some work to create a real character. In On Writing, Stephen King refers to the process as excavation: a slow unburying of a story in all of its glorious truth.
I think of developing characters in a similar way, as a process of peeling back layers. When we first meet our characters, they are hiding from us. They’re wearing three shirts, two sweaters, a parka and ten pounds of gloves, scarves, and hats. We can’t really tell who they are at a glance; they’re still buried. It’s up to us to peel back the layers and discover who’s really inside.
Some of this character development occurs during drafting, and some of it during revision. If you want a shortcut to creating characters that feel real, let go during drafting. Allow the character to take you to unexpected places. It’ll make for a much messier first draft, but you’ll lay bare the beating heart much sooner. My general philosophy about drafting is that it’s about telling ourselves the story, not about producing a story anyone else can understand. Drafting is about discovery, not decisions.
So, how do we excavate characters that feel real? What is it that makes them feel real in the first place? Some say you should use people from your real life as stand-ins for characters so that you’ll write them more roundly. That’s a clever approach, but it has some big limitations, mainly that you’re tied to reality in a way that obstructs creativity. Real people are too easily reduced to stereotypes, those cardboard-flat characters that are completely devoid of layers by definition. We need more layers than we’ll get from copying real people: you can start from a real person, but then you must complicate them.
Maggie Stiefvater wrote a brilliant tumblr post that refers to character layers as “salient noise.” What she means by "noise" is the million tiny deviations from the norm that make a person distinct, identifiable, and unique. Our characters need this complexity, which must be an active part of their person. We can spend all day listing their favorite foods, activities, and shampoos, but a bunch of static details does not a character make. What we need is the noise: their opinions, their passions, their weird obsessions and hidden desires.
Note that every one of the characteristics in that list is rooted in emotion.
Emotion makes life messy, and it makes characters messy, too. They should care deeply about unique things—like insisting that cottage cheese is not in fact a food, but a gross dairy concoction meant to simulate phlegm and therefore undeniably inedible. That’s a pretty specific passion to have, but I bet you can name a few dozen of your own food passions. The key to writing great characters is choosing their passions with an eye to plot and theme, so that your character’s layers inherently feed into your conflict and resonate emotionally with the reader. With characters, details matter.
Details come in many forms: the setting and how your character moves through it, the dialogue and how your character participates in it, the central conflict and how your character reacts emotionally to it, your character’s values and how they conflict with others, the mistakes made and the choices blown. As you draft, let these details present themselves, even if it means letting go of plot and sense for a while. Here are some prompts to get you started:
- It’s easy to focus on a character’s strengths, but what about their weaknesses? Show us their shortcomings, and you will likely win our hearts. Tie those shortcomings to the plot, and we’ll also be riveted.
- As you take us through the story, don’t just dwell on the first emotion that your character feels in a given situation—ask yourself what three emotions your character feels and why. Those are layers. Explore the feelings they’re ashamed of, and the ones they latch onto for strength. Show us how those various feelings conflict with each other, making choices hard.
- When a big decision presents itself, ask yourself what experiences your character uses as reference. We humans base our choices on our past experiences. Your character has a past, too. Their backstory makes them who they are, and it should drive the choices they make, whether in a good way or a bad way. Your character’s reactions may be messy and complicated, but so are real people.
- When you create a new character, try not to get distracted by what you see on the surface; delve into the details, picking more unusual layers to highlight, layers that serve your plot, heighten conflict, and foreshadow truth. Sometimes it’s even smart to work backwards, like taking a plot point or theme that you love and using it to extrapolate a specific trait for your character. Reinforce these choices during revision in order to maximize emotional resonance.
This is the art of writing: excavating characters from our minds in such a way that interests others. It requires getting out of our own way and looking past the surface to what lies beneath, so that we can depict that truth on the page. Only then will your characters feel as real to others as they do to you.
Melanie Conklin is a writer, reader, and life-long lover of books and those who create them. She lives in South Orange, New Jersey with her husband and two small maniacs. Counting Thyme (Penguin, April 2016) is her debut middle grade novel. For more, visit her on her website, twitter, or goodreads.
About Counting Thyme:
When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move from San Diego to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. Thyme struggles to reconcile her longing to return home with her growing awareness of the significance of Val’s new treatment, and the challenges of navigating middle school while feeling lost in the midst of a family crisis.