I see it all the time on Twitter or in writing groups: people struggling with two-dimensional characters with no idea how to flesh them out. Or, conversely, people try to tell the reader literally everything about the character in an attempt to make them feel three-dimensional. That’s not how you do it. Creating a realistic character doesn’t mean you need to know their blood type, childhood nicknames, and the name of every romantic partner they’ve ever had (unless it’s relevent to the story). Creating a realistic character means they have to act like a human being–which means they’ll have flaws, strengths, and desires.
Creating a realistic character means they have to act like a human being–which means they’ll have flaws, strengths, and desires.E. Prybylski
One thing many authors struggle with is accepting that their main character should be flawed. If the main character is perfect in every way, they will inherently come across as two-dimensional because (and let’s be frank here) everyone’s a bit of a mess. These flaws are what make characters come alive off the page. As a friend of mine commented on Facebook recently, your characters can also make stupid decisions, but they should be stupid choices based on who they are. Their fears, insecurities, things they’re ignorant of. The mistakes shouldn’t just be for plot reasons. Like Sherlock missing an important clue he should’ve seen, and the readers saw clear as day, because the story needed him to miss it with no explanation. If Sherlock missed something because he’d been hitting the opium and was high as a kite, then that makes sense. It builds toward his (very flawed) character, and while the reader might want to shake him for missing it. . .it makes sense for him.
These flaws don’t have to be crippling, but they should be more than things like minor nervous habits. Your characters might have prejudices. Or maybe they’re too proud to acknowledge that they are, in fact, not good at certain things. Or they’re too insecure to step up to certain challenges the right ways or can be goaded. These flaws can be capitalized on by enemies or by the author in order to put pressure on the character in certain ways in order to get them into the plot.
These flaws also provide the character a way to grow and develop over the course of the book and/or series. Let’s use Iron Man from the Avengers MCU movies. He starts his journey as a shallow, selfish, willfully ignorant jerk. And by Endgame, he’s become a very different character. He’s still Tony Stark and has all the panache and some of the same flaws, but he’s developed from a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” into a genius, billionaire, leader, philanthropist. He battles PTSD heavily through the series and develops into someone worthy of Pepper Potts’ affection as he grapples with the realities of war and the burden of heroism. He’s not “perfect” at the end, but you can see the ways his journeys have changed him and how he’s pushed past some of his early flaws (and developed new ones) to become an individual worthy of the title of “hero.”
These flaws also provide the character a way to grow and develop over the course of the book and/or series.E. Prybylski
So, we know what your character isn’t good at and what they’re afraid of. Those character flaws are key to creating someone realistic. But what about their strengths? Well, they can’t be good at everything, so these strengths should be focused around a few things. Going back to the example of Tony Stark, his strengths are largely his determination and his scientific genius. Unlike some of the other characters, he isn’t a particularly warm character, nor is he as calculating as, say, Black Widow. But he can think around corners and use his understanding of science to solve a lot of problems. Or at least try to solve them. This, of course, coupled with his hubris also causes major problems for the Avengers (Age of Ultron, anyone?), which allows those strengths to be used against the character for purposes of growth.
However, before we get into the way strengths can be used against the character, we also need to note that these strengths should be things the character uses to push the story forward and benefit them more than they do harm. If the character’s strengths are useless to the story or are not used in any way except to be punished, it’s going to make readers wonder why you bother having them at all. So you’ll want to make sure you aren’t just using them as foils for more failure.
Your character’s strengths should also make sense. Though be aware that not everything that’s real is believable, and not everything that’s believable is real. If I were writing my character in a novel, I probably wouldn’t make myself a pretty serious martial artist who has a genetic disorder that means I can dislocate a knee making the bed. No joke, it’s all true. There are a lot of folks who would read that sentence and do a double take and think that character’s totally unrealistic, but here we are. I have won awards for my historical European fencing, and taught Japanese sword arts for years. I’ve also been studying empty hand styles of martial arts on and off since I was four.
Be aware that not everything that’s real is believable, and not everything that’s believable is real.E. Prybylski
And yes, I did dislocate my knee making the bed. I also dislocated my shoulder putting my violin in its stand. It’s a never-ending source of consternation and frustration.
These strengths–assuming they’re for a major character–should be pertinent to the plot. If your character is an expert at folding origami, but that never gets mentioned in the story or used once in any way, what’s the point? If you mention it as characterization to show aspects of the character, but it doesn’t impact the plot, that’s all right. But at least some of your character’s strengths should benefit them through the story somehow, even if it’s not in the ways readers expect.
Also, subverting expectations that the character’s strengths will always benefit them is a good thing, also. Tony Stark’s brilliance and over-reliance on technology created Ultron, and ultimately this same brilliance that allows him to see all the angles cripples him when he is trying to deal with the visions Scarlet Witch gave him because he doesn’t know how to think his way out of the problem.
Character strengths can always be turned on their head and can be used to lead characters down the wrong paths just as easily as they can guide them down the right ones. As people, we tend to rely on our strengths to navigate life, and if we encounter a situation where our strengths aren’t helpful we might well try to use them anyway and bungle it or break down because we have no idea what to do. Character strengths are absolutely not exclusively positive traits.
For example, personally, I tend to be very cerebral. I think my way through things and analyze them to death. This has not served me well during times when I instead should be allowing my feelings to come out and accepting them. I dislike leading with my emotions because they are often very messy and terribly complicated. And I don’t like messy or illogical (and feelings and logic are often on very different wavelengths). So I can identify with Tony trying to think his way out of all his problems and being led astray by over-reliance on his intelligence to solve everything when, in fact, if he led with his heart a little more he might find solutions.
It also left him quite lonely since his tendency to not think about the emotional end of things makes him quite a prickly and unlikable person. I’m lucky enough that I’m not cerebral to his extreme by any sense (nor am I some kind of super genius), but it just goes to show the downside of strengths can absolutely be something used to fuel your story.
As the brilliant Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” They might want multiple things, or maybe the thing they want is fleeting and temporary (like the glass of water). But your character should have a goal and a need. This goes for side-characters, too, and anyone on the proverbial screen long enough to get mentioned directly. These wants tie into developing a realistic character. Having desires (and those desires being logical and realistic) means the character will likely act in service to those wants.
“Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”Kurt Vonnegut
You should also keep in your mind what your characters want at all times. This understanding of what they want and what they’re willing to do to accomplish that will provide you a great deal of fodder for understanding their mindset. If your character would stab someone for a Klondike Bar, well then you know what they’re willing to do in order to accomplish their ends. This will give you insight into not only your main character but into your antagonists, who should also be fully-fleshed characters. Even if the reader never learns about them.
A large portion of the MCU focuses around the fact that Tony Start wants to protect humanity. Desperately. Fiercely. He goes to some terrible ends to accomplish it, causing the crash and burn of the Avengers (in Civil War and Age of Ultron), but his desire, his want, is to protect people. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but what he’s willing to do to accomplish that end provides a great deal of plot fodder.
Conversely, Thanos wants to protect all life in the universe as well. While his understanding, views, and means are twisted, his ultimate want is to protect the future of life by preserving resources. And he’s willing to go further than Tony is to accomplish that. Tony and Thanos are, in a way, reflections of each other, which is one of the reasons the story is so compelling and why the two make such good foils for one another on screen.
In the end, developing a realistic character is all about understanding human nature. There are, of course, nuances to various cultures, races, times, and so on, but humans gonna human, more or less. We all have the three components of strength, weakness, and desire, and those are the quick and dirty keys to making a realistic character.
In the end, developing a realistic character is all about understanding human nature.E. Prybylski
Does it help to have as much data about the character as possible? Yes and no. If you’re drowning in superfluous nonsense, you’re not going to be able to pull out the important parts, and all the data points in the world won’t help you if you don’t know what the character wants or is afraid of in that moment. Knowing the basis of why your character has these traits is valuable (for example, I tend to be kind of flighty and unfocused due to ADHD), but it won’t make or break a character to not have every single aspect of their life outside the story mapped out.
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