The Craft of Writing: How do I Write Realistic Characters?Characters that seem like fully fleshed, living people...how do writers make them?
Perhaps surprisingly, trying to write realistic characters...isn’t a good idea.
Realistic characters aren’t interesting. Realistic characters run away from gunfire, not toward it. Realistic characters decline ambiguous invitations from mysterious wizards promising uncomfortable adventures. Realistic characters take the blue pill.
Even Arthur Dent, arguably one of the most “Everyman” characters in fiction, gets out in front of the bulldozer. Realistic characters take the settlement, pack up, and move.
What you want is authentic characters, not realistic characters. You want characters that feel true.
You do that by:
- Creating characters with a goal...
- ...who are not one-dimensional...
- ...that remain true to their initial conception...
- ...and behave consistently, not randomly.
The last bit is especially important. Characters that simply behave the way the plot needs them to, smart now but stupid later, calculating now but guileless later, don’t feel real.
If your character has been shown to be naive and trusting, he can’t suddenly become shrewd and cynical just because the plot requires it, then go back to naive and trusting.
Characters can grow, they can change, but they can’t behave randomly.
Of course, it is possible to create characters without a clearly defined goal in the start of the story, though they’ll likely have one by story’s end.
What makes a character seem real?
What makes a real person real?
Real people are complex and messy. They have different, sometimes contradictory drives. They don’t always get what they want. They have divided loyalties, fears, doubts, flaws, insecurities, imperfections. They have things they’re moving toward and things they’re moving away from.
So making characters that feel real is really just a question of doing the same thing.
You don’t necessarily have to show a character’s history or explain a character’s past—in fact, I would say that trying to cram a character’s entire past into the page is a sign of bad writing.
But you have to know it, and let it inform the character and the world.
The Passionate Pantheon novels Eunice and I write take place in a society with biomedical nanotechnology so advanced, you can alter your body in any way not forbidden by the laws of physics or chemistry pretty much on a whim. In the second novel, there’s a minor character with a scar. We never explain how he got it or why he kept it—normally any injury that doesn’t instantly kill you can be healed without a trace overnight—but you better believe WE know!
Realistic characters should have a depth that goes beyond their role in the story. Characters are like living people, not tools or objects to be slotted into the plot. Give the reader hints that the character has an existence, a life, goals and ambitions, a sense of purpose beyond just what the reader sees on-stage or what’s necessary to move your plot along. Complexity, in other words.
In our post-cyberpunk novel, Eunice and I tried to convey the sense that characters have a history and things they do in their lives right now that aren’t part of the novel’s plot:
Fazel shrugged. On the table, Jake groaned again. “Hypovolemic shock,” Fazel noted absently. He threaded a transparent bag of clear liquid through the hook on the end of a tall wheeled stand, unwound a clear plastic tube, pressed a needle into Jake’s arm.This passage does more than convey the history and connection between two of the characters, it also hints, at the very end, of additional complexity in one character’s life that is current, contemporaneous with the story, but outside of what the reader sees in the story. These characters are doing things, things that aren’t just part of the story’s plot.
“That bag says ‘veterinary use only,’” Nadine said.
Another shrug. “No hospital means no hospital. I’m doing what I can.”
“How’d you learn how to do this?”
He regarded her for a long moment, brown eyes dark through wire-rimmed glasses. “Afghanistan. The war. A whole different world, a whole different time.”
“That where you met Jake?”
“I thought he was in Belarus.”
“He was. Nyasvizh. Lost his arm there. Did he tell you that?”
“Only three people in his unit made it out alive. One of them died in the chopper.”
“I saw it on the news. I was still in Canada.”
Jake shuddered, gasping, eyes wide. “Hold him down,” Fazel dug in his bag, came back with a pair of blue latex gloves and a fat plastic tube, milky white, with a bright orange cap on the end. “I am so very sorry, my friend,” he said. He pulled on the gloves, popped the cap off, and shoved the tube hard against Jake’s thigh. Nadine heard a loud snap. Jake cried out.
“What did you give him?”
“Morphine analogue. Risky with his blood loss, but what I’m about to do is going to hurt a lot and we can’t have him thrashing about.”
“So what you just gave him could kill him?”
“Calculated risk. I need you to monitor his pulse. Here.” He took her fingers and pressed them against Jake’s neck, where she felt his pulse, fast but regular. Jake looked up at her, face contorted, then his eyes rolled back and he went limp on the table.
“So who is he to you?” Nadine said. “He seems to trust you. Why you?”
“He got us out of the country when everything went to shit, me and my family. Helped us resettle. If he hadn’t…” He shook his head. “Here I am. I’m going to give him a local anesthetic. I’m sorry, my friend, but this will hurt a lot.” He drew a long syringe with a large needle from his bag and set to work. Jake cried out, crushing Nadine’s hand tightly. “How is he doing?” Fazel said.
“Pulse is fast. Strong, but fast.”
“Come here. Put on some gloves.”
“Okay. Now what?”
Fazel took a pair of forceps and a hook-shaped needle threaded with thin cord and sealed inside a flat plastic wrapper from his bag, then tilted the light down. “He needs stitches. A lot of them. Please keep your finger right there. Move it this way as I make the sutures.” Nadine blanched when she saw the wound, now cleaned and exposed. With deft motions of the forceps, Fazel started making a row of tiny stitches.
“You’re pretty good at that, for someone who’s not that kind of doctor,” Nadine observed.
“You are very curious, aren’t you? I got my doctorate from the Vienna Biocenter. I went back home when it looked like things might finally be going back to normal. I wanted to give back to my country, you know? Then when the shit started again, I was impressed into the army. They found out I was a doctor, studied biology, so they made me a field medic. I tried to tell them what kind of doctor I was, but…” He shrugged. “After the collapse, well…here I am.”
“Why’d you go back, if you were in Vienna?”
“I loved my country. I still do, as hard as that might be to imagine. Afghanistan is a beautiful place. Not just deserts like so many Westerners think. In many ways, I still think of it as home. Move your finger, please.”
Jake groaned again. Nadine squeezed his hand. Finally, Fazel declared himself satisfied. “These might be the ugliest sutures I’ve ever seen. Certainly the ugliest I’ve ever done, but it will work. Help me bandage him.”
Fazel wrapped his leg with a bandage. Jake lolled on the hard metal table, crying out occasionally as Fazel worked. “He’ll have quite a scar,” Fazel said. He replaced the bag hanging above Jake’s arm. “He needs a blood transfusion, but that’s beyond my capability here.”
“Will he live without one?”
Fazel felt his pulse. “Probably. He’ll be weak and woozy for a while.”
“We need to find a place to hole up. We can’t go back where we were. Jake thinks it’s a bad idea to go to the same place twice.”
“Jake’s right,” Jake mumbled. He ran his hand over his head. “Where am I?”
“At the vet,” Nadine said. “How do you feel?”
“Like a building fell on me.”
“What happened?” Fazel said.
“A building fell on me.” He struggled to sit and fell back. “I feel like shit.”
“That happens to people when buildings fall on them,” Fazel said. “You’ve lost a lot of blood. Your friend said—”
“No hospital,” Jake said.
“Yes. She was quite insistent.”
Jake shook his head violently. Servos whined in his prosthetic arm. “What did you give me?”
His face clouded. “You know I can’t go near that. You know! What is wrong with you? How could you?”
“I am very sorry.” Fazel folded his hands together in front of him and looked down. “Please forgive me. I did not have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice.”
“Yes. I could have chosen to let you die. You will be weak and prone to disorientation for a while.”
Jake’s face set in a grim line. “Understood.”
“I have something for you.” He took a large manila envelope from his bag. “Analysis of the sliver you gave me. Gene sequence and MHC profile from the DNA sample.”
“Have you ever been to Australia?”
“Australia? No. Why?”
“The sliver is a quasicrystal polymer, standard flechette round used in less-than-lethal ammunition. Sharp tip, microscopic grooves to hold the chemical payload. Barbs to make the needle stick in flesh. Nasty. The needle itself carried a payload I’ve never seen before. Had to look up the spectral analysis. Probably synthetic. The closest match in the literature is moroidin.”
“Moroidin?” Nadine said. “What’s that?”
“Produced by a plant in Australia. Dendrocnide moroides. Locals call it the ‘suicide bush.’ It activates pain nerves on contact. Small doses can cause agonizing pain that persists for months or years. Those unfortunate enough to wander into contact with a suicide bush often kill themselves from the pain, hence the name.”
“Of course it’s Australian,” Jake said.
“So if you were shot with this…” Nadine said.
“Instant, debilitating agony that does not go away. People who have touched a suicide bush describe it as being electrocuted and burned with acid at the same time. The effects can linger for two, sometimes three years. The toxin is persistent and stable. Plants that have been dried and stored for decades remain toxic. Researchers have been affected by botanical samples.”
“Somebody weaponized this?” Nadine said.
“It would seem so, yes.”
Fazel removed his glasses, wiped them on his shirt, tucked them neatly back on his face. “If there were a scale for evil, such a weapon would be very near the top. If you don’t mind my asking, how did you come to be involved in all this?”
Jake struggled upright. “Fazel, my friend, it’s better for all of us if you don’t know.”
Fazel handed him a small, unmarked bottle of pills. “Antibiotics. One now, one every six hours until they’re gone. Take them all. Drink lots. Don’t move.”
Jake hoisted himself to his feet, where he stood wobbling, leaning against the table. “Thank you, my friend. You have more than repaid whatever debt you owed me.”
The two men embraced. “You can stay with us for a time,” Fazel said.
“No way,” Jake said. “You can’t be anywhere near us. It’s not safe. This may be the last time I see you.”
Fazel unhooked the bag of fluid from the stand. “Leave this in until it’s empty. Take the antibiotics I gave you. Change the dressing—”
“I know. Not my first rodeo, Doctor.”
“Of course.” Fazel took a thick envelope from his jacket pocket and set it on the counter. “For the man who owns this clinic,” he said at Jake’s look. “He serves indigent people with pets. They can’t always pay him. We have an…arrangement that helps him stay in business.”
“Even after all these years, you still find ways to surprise me with your depth.”
“I might say the same about you.” Fazel touched his hand to his heart. “Khodā hāfez, my friend. Go. I will stay and clean up.”
Dynamic characters aren’t one-dimensional. Part of being multidimensional means living a life that has more going on than just what’s necessary for the story.