A couple months ago, I wrote a post about writing relatable characters, where I said readers connect most with characters when the characters interact with the story. I want to expand on that today.
Characters have (or should have) personalities. Some authors even create big, detailed charts outlining every detail of their characters – looks, intelligence, talents, family, job, etc. This allows the characters to feel real, but all of this is baseline. These personalities play into how they act and react within your story.
Consider, for a moment, the cast of one of my favorite shows, The Big Bang Theory. The premise of many episodes is how the different characters react to a given situation. For example, in one episode. Sheldon, Raj, Leonard, and Howard are taking a trip via train to a conference where Sheldon is supposed to give a presentation. On the train is an actress three of them are infatuated with (guess which one isn’t, if you haven’t seen this episode). Raj can talk to her as long as he’s drinking (or thinks he is), Howard is his typical skeevy self, and Leonard… well I don’t remember what Leonard did with the girl because he was trying to keep Sheldon from freaking out about forgetting the thumb drive with his presentation on it.
The characters all act according to their personalities. It was a little hard to believe that Sheldon would forget his thumb drive, but it was a good thing he did because Penny wouldn’t have learned his grandma’s nickname for him otherwise (it was Moonpie).
Now imagine all the characters acting – well, out of character. Sheldon becomes type B and doesn’t worry about the flash drive. He’ll wing the presentation. Leonard becomes a chauvinistic asshole and starts using the worst pickup lines on the actress. Raj talks about how much he lifts and kisses his biceps. Howard apologizes for Leonard and Raj.
How would viewers react?
Readers like to predict what will happen in the story, and a lot of it is wondering what the character will do next. We use information about the characters’ personalities to make these predictions, and the satisfaction of reading comes from seeing how our predictions play out. If we near the end of a book and a character’s personality and behavior don’t line up with what we’ve learned since the beginning (even taking the arc into account), it distances us from the character and ergo, the story.
We writers should avoid this situation. This is why it’s so important for us to know our characters inside and out.
A fellow author who does this especially well is Emily Russell, who wrote Aurian and Jin. Her characters immediately stand out from any others I’ve read in the genre. Take Jin, for example. She’s an almost-middle-aged, tall, foul-mouthed warrior with poor hygiene who drinks too much and who’s missing an eye. She drew me into the story right away. I can predict how Jin will behave, and even when she surprises me, it’s not outside the lines of plausibility.
Though I’d say Jin is my favorite character, a secondary one not far behind in my favortism is Vetiver. What makes Vetiver unique is she is a head.
That’s not a typo. She is just a head that was removed from a body and brought back to life through magic. She talks, has attitude, and even eats. She obviously can’t move around on her own – she doesn’t even have a neck – so she depends on Aurian and Jin to carry her around. She has an impressive back story and connection to Jin, so even as a head, she’s, um, rolling with personality.
It is obvious Russell thoroughly knows her characters and how they would react when placed in any situation. This is why her story works, IMO.
We should know our characters so well that things we see in real life remind us of them. You know how you sometimes see something on the internet, and you think, “Hey, Aunt Beatrice would really like this photograph of a goat riding a unicycle” and you send it to her? That’s because you know who she is and what she likes. We should strive to know our characters equally well.
A while back, I saw a funny picture on the interwebs that reminded me of a character from TFD, so I put it on my Facebook page.
Now, if you’ve read The Fourth Descendant, it’s not hard to figure out which character I’m talking about. It’s not just about the hair, though, or even the guitar. It’s about the personality. Do you think Damien would do something like this if he had the hairstyle for it? If Jonah were a real person and a Facebook friend, I’d paste this pic to his timeline.
So there you have it: know thy characters, and keep your readers immersed.
Have you seen people/things in real life that remind you of your characters?