One of the things that writers are supposed to be good at is describing people. Not just how they look or what they say, but their motivations, emotions, and inner workings. A character is flat (a Mary Sue/Stu), potentially unrelatable and unlikable, if the writer can’t bring these untangibles to life on the page.
So how is a writer supposed to become good at such a task? As the many bad books I’ve read over the years can attest to, it certainly is not a skill that all writers possess. (While I wouldn’t say I’m great at it, it is something that is always in the back of my mind as I write)
Well there are countless books full of “tips and tricks”, lists of personality traits, analytical examinations of human behaviour, and rules to follow. I’ve read some of them. Sometimes they’re helpful, other times not so much. What you get from them is going to depend on what book you pick up, and what your own needs are. So what other options are there?
Obviously you can practice. But this is one of those skills that requires at least a little outside input. Some of the bad books I’ve read have had characters that the author clearly loved, but were just awful depictions of a person. Writing a book is a lot of effort and a labour of love. So it makes me wonder how many people they had review their story before publishing. (Getting people other than family and friends to take a look is something I plan on talking about in a few months)
My first baby steps into the arena of better characters started when my best friend and I created a “fan fiction” about the people we went to high school with. It was utterly absurd and never got further than the planning stages. But we created a cast of around 100 characters based on our classmates. In a fictional Wonderland-esque world. Now we had already taken to writing notes to each other in bastardized elfish so that no one could read them, so obviously if we were going to be discussing and/or working on this project, the characters couldn’t be complete carbon copies.
So we tweaked and adjusted who these characters were. Some traits were played up, others downplayed, a few added or removed. The characters started to take on a life of their own, and an entire little world full strangeness took form.
There were the twin princes -one dark, one light. Physically. They were both spoiled and pampered, but with a good heart behind their various foibles. The dark one had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because people outside the palace treated him worse because he wasn’t as “pretty” as his brother.
Then there were a group of ladies’ daughters. They were always perfectly coiffed and would never deign to speak to a commoner, lest their reputation be sullied. One was petty and enjoyed using her power, another was naive, a third purposefully was ignorant, and the final one secretly loved to consort with the “lower class”.
Now, by this point many of the characters stopped looking anything like the people we’d originally based them on. But there were subtleties and layers mixed in amongst the cliches. This is the first time I really remember sitting down and thinking about what made a character a person. Of course, once we had the cast we never did figure out what the story was going to be. So the project died.
But I realized that one of the best ways to learn about creating real characters is to watch real people. Sure you can’t know what they’re thinking or feeling. You can’t know if they have a sick loved one at home, or if they hate their job, or whether they have the strangest luck. But you can see how they move and talk and act. And you can wonder why they are that way.
As you wonder, make notes. Does it seem like every brunette male with a bit of scruff ends up with a similar “story”? Or perhaps you’ve noticed that elderly men with canes end up seeming kind of sinister. Whenever you find these patterns, challenge yourself to break them. Come up with a different reason that they look or act that way. Add depth that would make a reader question the morality of the hero, or sympathize with the villain. Make them feel real by adding foibles and strengths, fears and dreams, challenges overcome, failed, and those still ahead.
It’s basically a writer’s version of the people-watching game where you and a friend come up with different life stories based on what you see of a person from a distance in a restaurant, on the bus, or as they walk past.
Being a “creeper” (as my sister calls it) is one of the best exercises I know of to practice writing full characters.