Imagine a misfit kid. He’s picked on. The teacher doesn’t like him, and he’s often in trouble. He’s not from around here, so he has difficulty relating to the locals. After many weeks of loneliness, he tries to win the favor of his classmates by providing them with snacks. All is going well until his popcorn machine catches fire and nearly burns the school down. Even when he’s trying to be good, he ends up doing something bad.
Can you relate to any of that?
I should probably tell you this boy has a giant blue head and will call himself Megamind.
I start with that story because Megamind – though he isn’t technically a person – is a great example of a relatable character. He longs for connection, he hangs his head when he’s sad, he has goals, he’s awkward with women, and he speaks like a regular person, mispronunciations and everything. He even wears pajamas – he was blowing up a building at the time, but still. Jammies.
The main character is one of the first elements readers encounter when starting a book, and if they don’t quickly connect, they might not stick with the story. Yes, a great hook is necessary and questions need to arise, but none of that matters if your MC is as interesting as a cinder block. If we can’t relate to the characters, why should we give a crap what happens to them?
Characters need to “feel” like real people. So how do we write them that way?
It starts with observation, because there are things people do and have that you won’t think of while you’re writing, and these things can make your characters more “human”. I use a strategy that might sound creepy but really isn’t. It involves a phone with a notepad app (or a notebook you can write in discreetly) and a public area.
Settle on the edge of the space, where you can see most of the people. From there, open your notepad app and pretend like you’re texting or something. You’ll glance up occasionally, but no one will notice or care. Besides, if anyone says anything, use the old writer’s excuse for everything – it’s for research.
Start by taking notes on the variations in appearance: tattoos, scars, interesting haircuts/colors, facial expressions, facial hair, tan lines, unibrows, manicures, freckles/moles, unusual clothing, etc. Then, pay attention to body language, especially if people are talking to each other. Are they sitting or standing? If sitting, are their legs crossed? Are they leaning towards their conversation partner or away? Do they talk with their hands? Play with their hair? If you can glean the type of conversation – serious or friendly – link that with the body language.
Then, as best you can, eavesdrop. How do different people say things? Are there dangling thoughts or coherent sentences? What are their inflections? Does their body language change with what they say? Do they ask a lot of questions or talk about themselves? Do they prefer to listen?
You’ll be amazed how much you’ve recorded in a short span of time. And everything you jot down could potentially be weaved into character descriptions and their action beats, making them feel more real. Of course, this is all surface level stuff. We can’t know personalities, backgrounds, and deeper motivations from simple observation (unless they’re talking about that, I suppose). That’s when you get to remember your participation in the human race.
One of my writer friends bases many characters on himself and his family. I basically create mine from thin air, but since I’ve interacted with people my whole life, traits (like intelligence, sloppiness, clumsiness, sense of humor, etc) are based on those of people I know. These play into the character’s actions and goals.
Once you have an idea of what the character looks and acts like and what their personality is, you know how they’d react in certain situations, like those you put them in for the sake of the story. This is where they become relatable. Their reactions have to be plausible, or “in character”. While it’s good to break stereotype (which you can do before a reaction is necessary), if your MC acts too off the wall, readers won’t be able to connect. Real people behave with a degree of predictability and your MC should as well, even as they’re changing along the course of the character arc.
A note on back story – while the character’s history before the story can be something readers relate to, it doesn’t have to be. I don’t know what it’s like to live under my aunt’s staircase or how to hunt for food to keep my family from starving under the rule of an oppressive government. Those backgrounds contributed to making the characters who they are, but I relate to them in their present situations.
This is getting long, so I’ll end with this: if your characters are relatable, they’ll become parts of your readers’ lives. Readers have told me they wonder what my characters are up to before they remember the characters don’t exist. Characters should ring true and feel like friends. When that happens, all other responsibilities take a back seat to finding out what happens to them.
What do you think? How do you make your characters “real”?