One of the hardest elements for new writers to try and overcome is how to develop realistic, relatable characters, so, I thought I’d talk a little bit about how I overcome this particular hurdle.
When I was a teenager, I found inspiration for storylines by listening to music. (Groundbreaking, I know. Quick, write that down!) I would play my favourite, most dramatic emo songs, and imagine exciting scenes that would go along with them. This was obviously back in the days where we didn’t have iPads to watch during long car rides, so making movies in my head was the best way to pass the long trip through London traffic to glamorous holidays in Sunny Grimsby. I say this with no bitterness, it was one of my favourite things to do and honestly it’s the reason why I enjoy long journeys so much even now. Though, now that I’m the driver, I get frowned upon for disappearing into fantasy worlds while on the motorway. There’s just no room for magic in todays world…
Anyway, as a result of this, coming up with storylines was easy for me; I would just stitch together my imaginary music videos and they would make the premise for my story. Where I struggled was in filling the gaps with conversations and believable characters. I tended to lean on personalities that I enjoyed reading about. Needless to say, the main protagonist was usually some kind of sassy, feminist badass working alongside a handsome anti-hero, tormented vampire-esque chap. Basically, just my deluded image of myself and my future boyfriend. (The real-life me was an awkward arty-type shovelling ice cream in her mouth while cranking to Twilight for the billionth time…)
Aaaaanyway… the premise was fine, but the characters were all inevitably 2D because I was basing them on characters I had already read about. Truthfully, I think this is something most artists do to some extent, including me, because we create what inspires us. It’s okay to base your characters on the types of heroes you’ve had in the past, but what takes them from stick-men with pointy teeth to actual, real life people?
Get ready to get that pen back out people…
Base them on people you know in real life!
Okay, okay…again, not groundbreaking. But hear me out!
Basing a character on someone you know personally is more complicated than you might initially think. If it’s not done right, they can end up as 2D as any knock-off fictional character.
For example, I had a best friend as a teen who was pretty much exactly the kind of female protagonist I could only dream of being. She was beautiful, funny, sassy and alternative. She wore punky clothes, make up, face piercings, and pulled it all off without looking like an attention-seeking emo kid. Mostly.
But, what I’ve just described is literally all there was to her. On the surface, she should have been an easy character to write, but there was nothing deeper for me to draw from that would make her a relatable character. For the record, she wasn’t a bad person, just kinda shallow. But hey, she was getting laid and I wasn’t so, she was obviously getting something right.
On the other hand, I spent a few years living with my Irish Grandmother. On the surface, just your average Nan, elderly, caring, had unnecessarily hard furniture… not very interesting. But, she had more depth and quirks than pretty much anyone I know. Something I only realised when I would tell stories about her to my friends. Nan had so much that defined her; she had beautiful hands despite her age, but when she whacked you for eating your third KitKat in one sitting, it was like being hit with a plank of wood. She would sit forward and crook her finger at me to beckon me closer, even if I was sat next to her, because she didn’t want God to hear her gossiping. She would watch the window instead of the TV because if she caught that ‘ole bastard’ parking in her neighbours spot again she was going out there. She loved animals so much that she once ‘adopted’ a cat from our neighbour because she didn’t think they were treating it right. The fact that I’m allergic to cats was apparently a non-issue.
(I did sneak the cat back into it’s garden but he kept coming back to our house so I figured by then that maybe my Nan was on to something.)￼
My point is, to make a character believable, you need to dig much deeper than the surface characteristics. Don’t just look at the people in your life for the standard traits. What makes them special? Or strange? Or, in some cases, a little loose with the laws of animal abduction?
When you see these people in your minds eye, what stands out in your memory about them? That is what will make them memorable to your readers.
Boom. Pen drop.