Take Five: #18: Creating realistic characters

Take Five
Five-minute reads about writing
to help you with NaNoWriMo
Nov. 1 - Nov. 30, 2011
Courtesy: Sasha Soren (Random Magic)
Twitter: @RandomMagicTour

#18: Creating realistic characters

Yesterday we talked about building believable characters, keeping a set of simple but crucial questions in mind - if you missed that exercise, you can go back and try it here: The five Ws of story. 

Today's post continues the focus on creating realistic characters. 

Author Lisa Scottoline discusses this topic in a useful video included on her YouTube channel. Do keep in mind that she's a crime writer and her novels are set in the 'real' world. 

The observations she makes might not necessarily apply to the same degree, or in the same way, for genres like fantasy or science fiction. Even in genres like fantasy and science fiction, though, the world might be fanciful, but character motivations are likely to be something quite recognizable.

So, her points on characterization also apply even in more unusual kinds of fiction. Your characters might not be concerned with, as in one of her examples, a diet or carb-cutting. But her commentary on how action reveals character would apply in nearly any genre; it doesn't matter whether that genre happens to be mystery or historical fiction or fantasy or romance.

What a character does can tell you as much about him or her as what they say. Sometimes more. 

You'll find the Scottoline video below, with some highlighted commentary listed. Some lines or phrases have been skipped, summarized, paraphrased or condensed, but the text does cover most of the major points she makes on characterization.


Transcript (highlights): I'm a people person. I relate to people - and most people do. So, the main character has to be somebody who's relatable. It doesn't mean they have to be perfect or a nice person. But they have to be sufficiently realistic. 

Have a list in your head of what this person's traits are. You're not going to write them down, yet. You're just going to know that person. When you're sitting down, think not only about their virtues and their faults, think about what they eat for breakfast. 

You have to know a lot more about them that you're going to tell the reader. The best way to reveal character is through action. You don't want to say, 'My character is brave.' You want to show your character being brave. 

The interesting thing is that character and plot are actually the same thing. 

Let's say we're sitting in this room and we're all talking for the video. All of a sudden, a guy comes into the room and starts shooting. Everybody will react - and they'll react in character. Some people will jump in front of him, others might tackle him. Maybe my dog will go for him. Some people would call 911. 

What they do not only reveals who they are - brave, not brave, scared, good in emergencies, cool under fire, hysterical under fire - but also drives the next chapter. 

For example, if your protagonist is going to be the one to tackle him - he tackled him, the gunman was on the floor, the gun might've gone off - what happened next?

'What happened next?' is the stuff of any novel, and can come out of character. 

To recap: 1. Show who that character is through action. 2. Know a lot about the character that you're not going to necessarily tell the reader right away. 3. Show character in little details - name, what they wear, what they eat. If you know all of this stuff, you're good to go.

Official site: Lisa Scottoline 
Lisa Scottoline's books: Covers and blurbs 
Amazon: Print | Kindle
Other formats: Audio 
More on Lisa Scottoline: Twitter | YouTube 
More writing advice: Ideas | The writing life | Viewpoint

Right! So, for today's quick writing exercise, we'll take a look at a promo shot from Lisa Scottoline's own site, are you ready? Here we are:

Yes, this is a promo shot, not necessarily a casual private photo. But as it's only a quick exercise, it will be perfectly fine as a visual.

Please take a look at this photo, and then jot down (on paper, or just in your head) five things you notice about this image that might tell you something about the person it portrays. That should help you start thinking about the same things when it comes to your characters.

 If you'd like to do another exercise to help with your own work, you can just start with Scottoline's scenario about a man with a gun and do a quick rundown of your own cast of characters, thinking over how each one would react. 

If you reach a blank spot with a character and realize you're not actually sure how they'd react, then that's a character that might need some more attention to bring him or her into focus in your own mind. 

Once you have a grasp on basic personality traits, the rest of the details will fill themselves in.

Characters, once created, actually start to reveal things about themselves that you didn't know at first. But you have to be solid on individual psychology before that starts to happen spontaneously. If you're just guessing what they might do, then you'll be guessing about a lot of other things in the story.

About this series

The Take Five series is curated by Sasha Soren, author of Random Magic. You can find out more about the book here, if you like:

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