Really Real People

Let’s look at characterization.  Okay, I know, we’ve done this before, but this is one of those topics that is worth taking a second (or third, or fourth) look at. 

As I’ve mentioned before on the topic of plotting, there is a tendency by some writers (typically newer writers, though not always) to stick with “This is How It Really Happened” only when it comes to characterization, it’s more like “This is How They Really Were” instead.  As with plotting, reality doesn’t always make for good fiction.  I reread a piece of work recently where the main character is portrayed as this perfect, innocent, sweet girl (until she reaches adulthood, but we won’t get into that now).  Some writers want to create these “pure” characters to emphasize (or over-emphasize) qualities that they think the reader needs to have.  Now, when I say “pure” I don’t mean “as the driven snow,” although that can be one of the qualities.  Sometimes it’s the pure good character – the righteous man or woman who is wronged, the perfect kid who always does his homework and helps old ladies across the street, the perfect daughter who would never do anything to disobey her fabulous parents.  Sometimes it’s the evil character – a villain so heartless he steals money from children, the monster who commits vile acts against anyone and everyone, the devil incarnate.

Characters such as these are – well – they’re not real.  Your grandmother may have been a very wonderful woman who taught you amazing lessons, but lurking beneath her flour-covered apron was a secret or two which you knew nothing about.  Here’s a real-life example.  I grew up believing my great-grandmother (who taught me to crochet and to cook), was as close to a saint as I was ever likely to know.  I could easily have held on to this belief about her, but I was fortunate to have a less-than-perfect grandmother (daughter of my great-grandmother) who spilled the beans about her mom.  Turns out my great-grandmother had a short fuse.  When she learned my great-grandfather had been cheating on her, she waited by the door for him to come home and clocked him on the head with a cast-iron skillet.  Then she shoved him outside with a note pinned to his back that said “adulterer” on it.  That was the last time he came to the house. 

Stories are far more interesting with imperfect characters because they make us feel more human ourselves.  Darn few perfect beings have ever graced the Earth with their footsteps, so trying to create a human character who lacks believable foibles is sort of ridiculous. 

This goes double for the bad guys.  It’s very easy to give a bad guy in a story some negative traits.  Typically we give them far more than they really need or deserve.  A bad guy (or girl) who is purely evil but not named Satan, Beelzebub, etc., is not going to be a realistic character.  When I teach workshops, I like  to remind students that even Jeffery Dahmer’s dad loved him, and John Wayne Gayce lived with his mom and took care of her.

The point is that the purely evil bad guy isn’t credible.  There has to be something interesting, some small human trait that  makes this character more realistic.  Maybe he grows orchids.  Maybe she gets her nails done and over-tips the gal in the salon.  Maybe he sings old sea shanties to himself.  It doesn’t matter what the aspect is, it just matters that there is some quality with which a reader can identify that brings the character a bit more humanity.

Another important aspect of characterization is avoiding stereotype.  If you’re writing about the perky cheerleader, and her deep, dark secret is that she has an eating disorder because she’s trying to be perfect, you’re not going to get very far with writing.  Stereotypes are not believable.  In fact, they destroy the credibility of a possibly good character.

If your bad guy is the local bully, and you reveal that he comes from an abusive home, your reader is going to silently roll his or her eyes and close the book.  Creating realistic characters is one of the more challenging parts of writing fiction. If it seems too easy, then it probably isn’t because you’re astoundingly good at it.  Chances are you’ve relied on some stereotypes to fill in the work for you.

There are numerous good books on this subject.  I’m partial to Dwight Swain’s “Creating Characters” because it is easy to follow and fun to read.  Swain has bit of an edge to his writing, but I tend to like things like that.

However you achieve it, make these people real and resist the temptation to cheat and use stereotypes.  Your reader will thank you.


3 thoughts on “Really Real People

  1. Ms Kim,

    In my book the good guys have some bad, the bad guys have some good, and my mama thinks I’m perfect. I’m not but I hide it from her the best I can.

  2. Kim Justesen says:

    Think of all the things we hide from our coworkers, our parents, our siblings, our children, and even our friends. There’s good character stuff to be mined there! And it’s just fine your mama thinks your perfect. You must be a great son!

  3. mapelba says:

    Sometimes I don’t put a character’s deep dark secret or unsettling past into the story–but I know it and it helps me understand that character. If I understand the character and sympathize and care about that character–no matter how horrible he or she may be–I think that helps him or her come across as more rounded, complex, and believable.

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