After interviewing hundreds of first-time authors, I determined that most stumble over how to create realistic personalities for their books. It can seem like a daunting task. Whether you’re writing a memoir or a novel, one of the most important elements will be crafting three-dimensional characters.
Now if you’re writing a memoir, please keep in mind that YOU are the main character. You need to be very relatable to your readers. You can’t appear to be flat.
Consider your favorite books. Weren’t you drawn to the people? If you’re anything like me, you empathized with and related to various characters. In addition, you might have been sad when the story was finished because you had to say goodbye to your new friends. (Am I alone here?)
In order to create memorable, three-dimensional characters for your book, you need to do a little homework. Even if the book is a work of fiction, you must buckle down and do your research. Why? Because you need to know and understand the nuances of each important character in your novel before you can portray them realistically. Also, each person must develop throughout the story, completing a journey by the end. And that development needs to resonate with your readers.
Keep it real
Meeting a character in a novel is a bit like meeting someone for the first time in life. It’s probably more like a good blind date, right? Think about it. When you first get to know a new person and hit it off, you see them in a certain light. That might be a tad rosy; that person can appear to be almost perfect.
Someone new in your life will go out of his or her way not to display negative emotions. No angry outbursts, no overly dramatic scenes, no whiney arguments. That’s because he or she isn’t comfortable enough to expose their flaws to you.
Rather, your new acquaintance will be perfection personified, using only the best manners when they are around you.
As you continue to develop a relationship with that man or woman, you’ll start to see a few faults peek out. Buttons pop up. Stephen might be super polite, but when faced with any sort of emergency, he turns into a whiny mess. Georgia might never swear, but when she finds a cockroach in her food, she will drop the f-bomb like a sailor.
Why am I mentioning this? It’s because if you want to create realistic people for your book, you must write as if you’ve known them for years. Skip the honeymoon phase. It’s overrated. Jump to the real person, the real Stephen or Georgia. Fast forward and allow them to reveal their idiosyncrasies.
That’s how you create truly three-dimensional characters.
Trust me, no one enjoys reading about flat, boring, “perfect” people. Would you? No. Your readers expect and demand that you write as if the person really existed in our world. Bad guys aren’t always bad, and good guys are rarely saints.
People have a lot of gray areas.
Give them balance.
Communicate with dialogue
Communication is an integral part of life. It’s a bit like breathing when it comes to interactions between two people. After all, silence is usually death in a marriage, isn’t it?
Communication is also a bit like a signature for some people. Even with your eyes closed, you can sometimes pick out who said what just by the way they speak. Certain phrases are said in a particular way. Think of the people in your life that you know really well. Don’t they have catchphrases or ways of mispronouncing words that are endearing?
Heck, some of my friends make up words on a regular basis. Looking it over, there are so many different ways to put words together to communicate an idea. That’s partly what makes us unique three-dimensional characters in life.
Through great dialogue in a book, you can get a feel for a character’s personality. When it’s done well, you can almost hear the people speaking out loud. That’s the point when a reader gets lost in the pages of a good book. Have you ever read a passage and forgotten that you were reading? I know I have.
As a reader, I find it very easy to lose myself in the story when the words just flow from character to character. I’ve always loved dialogue-driven books.
As a writer, when I’m in the zone, when I know and understand my characters, it feels like I’m a fly on the wall. I’m there, just listening in to the conversation. They speak, I write. I’m just basically a stenographer. It’s that simple and that easy.
Three-dimensional characters have a unique style
As I mentioned, people tend to say things in a certain way. They have expressions that are unique to them. Some writers refer to these as “verbal tics.” A disgruntled teen might slap a parent with “Whatever!” regularly. I’ve heard some extremely polite people always refer to strangers as “sir.” And I have a friend who punctuates statements with a “BAM!” I don’t know anyone else who does that. These nuances set people apart like color on a painter’s pallet.
A character’s communication style may also be influenced by the specific geographical location from which he hails. That’s where research can really help (thank heavens for modern search engines). For instance, someone from Minnesota might tack on “eh” to a statement to turn it into a question, eh? Or someone from the South might regularly use the second-person plural pronoun of “You-all.”
Honestly, I love creating these phrases for my characters. It’s an excellent way to reveal some aspects of their personalities.
Create bonds between characters
In the real world, when two close friends get together, their exchange can take on a life of its own. Someone on the outside might have trouble translating all the idioms and inside jokes the two friends have created together.
As a writer, it’s your job (and pleasure) to create that realistic dialogue between close friends. Now keep in mind, it’s important not to lose your readers. They have to be in on the inside jokes. They must understand your characters well enough to understand the snippets of snappy dialogue you provide.
Sometimes you’ll need to use slang terms from another country to make it more believable. For instance, if your character is German, he might say “Gesundheit!” (meaning “good health”) instead of “God bless you!” when someone sneezes. Or if you’re creating another world for a science fiction novel, you might need to develop new words so that the reader becomes immersed in your book’s universe.
One of the best examples of this was when the characters in Battlestar Galactica used “frak” to communicate a popular swear word. It’s brilliant because we all understood what the creators meant, but it helped the viewers know they weren’t in Kansas anymore (not even close). The writers introduced us to a new word, and today I think you’ll find it has become part of our culture. And yes, most schools forbid its use as they would any other swear word.
Mannerisms speak volumes
We all have mannerisms that help to define us. For instance, when someone raises an eyebrow, we know he is a bit skeptical of the previous statement made. We all know what that look means.
When building a character for your book, consider creating mannerisms that make him uniquely him. For example, I knew a Grandmaster of chess who would tap his head with all five fingers when he was deep in thought. I doubt he knew he was doing it, but it was a signature move. If you saw his bowed head and drumming fingers, you’d instantly recognize it was him.
If you’re writing a book and get stuck for ideas, go out and look around. Go to a crowded place, maybe a mall or a party, and observe what people are doing. Take notes and find a way to use that information to help you create more distinctive characters.
Draw from life
The best way to write detailed actions, descriptions, and dialogue for three-dimensional characters is to live your life. Pay attention to what is going on around you. Look around and notice how people behave. Take notes. I mean, literally, take notes!
It’s fascinating how people will put together a phrase or what they do when they think no one is looking. Also, notice how people interact, especially when they know each other well. Often, they will shorten phrases that everyone knows. “I guess I could do that” becomes, “I guess.” Or “Would you like to come with us?” turns into, “Wanna come?” The average person usually doesn’t speak the Queen’s English, so your characters should avoid these formalities as well (unless they are appropriate for their personality).
Keep in mind that there are a lot of silent communications as well. “Please pass the salt” is sometimes replaced with a nod of the head toward the saltshaker. John Cleese once commented that in England everyone always apologizes for everything. If someone wants the salt, Mr. Cleese pointed out that people will tend to nod toward the shaker and say, “Sorry?” I laughed hard at that observation.
Honestly, creating realistic personas is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing for me. It is a bit like getting to know a group of cool people, except you are the one who will give them form and life. I encourage you to take your time and relish the experience.
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