writing realistic characters

5 Things You Need to Know about your Characters (That You’ll Probably Never Tell Your Readers)

So, it's the new year.

And you've promised yourself you're going to finish that novel, flesh out that short story, develop that video game... except your characters seem to hate you. They won't tell you about their lives and even if you have the best idea for a plot, they keep shrugging their shoulders in the ultimate expression of meh.

Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Except you really need them to work with you. You really do. 

So you keep trying to force them to muddle through the plot you have planned, or you keep trying to cajole them into revealing where they want to go and who they want to have a torrid love affair with next.

I've been there. Trust me. I know. Writing LOST BOY, FOUND BOY was a year-long exercise in, "seriously, Peter? Talk to me, man. Tink? What about you? No? Why? Why do my characters all hate me.

If you're anything like me, you might want to take a break from your actual narrative at this point and spend some time getting to know your characters better. Chances are, once you do, they'll help you bust through any plot devices you're having trouble with, because they'll be that much more multi-dimensional.

So, without further ado: 5 things you need to know about your characters (that you'll probably never even tell your readers: not explicitly, anyway).

1. What do they want in this scene? 

Yes. In every. Single. Scene. 

What do they want? Why do they want it?

Clear answers.

In every. Single. Scene.

It's okay if your character doesn't know: hell, we often don't know what we want, or why we want it, in the scenes of our everyday lives. But as the author, you should.

2. What Hogwarts House are they in?

And be careful, here. Hogwarts Houses are always super interesting to me: the only reason Harry wasn't in Slytherin, remember, is because he chose not to be. You can choose, at the tender age of 11. 

So, the question gets more complicated: would the House you think your character would be in now be different than what it would have been or will be when they're eleven? Why? What changed? What stayed the same?

Not a Harry Potter person? No judgment (mostly). The basics here are about knowing what qualities your characters value in themselves and what they value in other people. Does your character think it's better to be kind or to be correct? To have lots of friends or to have a small handful of intimate chosen family? To be on the front lines or in the background? Where are the complexities? The 'yes ands'? The conflicts of values? 

This is where your characters get rich in development.

3. What do they do in their down time?

In book cultures of chosen ones and plucky teens saving the world, we often forget the mundane, the "boring", the "oh my Rao I just want to go home and sleep."

Forget what they need to do to survive, for a moment: what do your characters do to thrive?

Or, what would they do if they weren't wrapped up in whatever intensive plot you have lined up for them?

4. Why do they like (or dislike) x person?

We love chemistry in our books, don't we? Two characters meet eyes across the room, and bam. An OTP is born.

And I'm all for that. I'm all about that.

But what sparks that chemistry (or the hatred, or the ambivalence, etc.) between two characters? What, indeed, keeps it going (or not)?

Sometimes, my favorite questions about my characters are the simplest ones. Someone asked me the other day, "What does Evelyn like the most about Sadie?" And I had to scratch my head and think about it for a hot minute. Hell, I'm still thinking about it. 

Because it was a beautiful question. And I can write an entire prequel and/or sequel as an answer to it. Make sure those things shine through, even if you're not writing about them explicitly. 

5. What is x's relationship with y?

What I mean by that is this: imagine a scene with four characters in it. Let's choose mine, for funsies. Sadie, Evelyn, Zaylam, and Jorbam.

Sadie and Evelyn are dating each other (or at least, they want to; even if they won't admit it yet). Zaylam, Sadie, and Jorbam are hatchling mates who grew up together.

And, Sadie is the POV character.

Great.

But.

What about how Jorbam and Evelyn interact? Jorbam and Zaylam, when Sadie isn't there? Evelyn and Zaylam? The three of them, without Sadie? 

Fleshing out relationships between multiple characters, in multiple combinations -- even if you don't give a massive amount of tangible detail to your readers about these "side" relationships -- is extremely, extremely important, and it makes for a much richer narrative. 

My favorite scene in all of the Harry Potter series, for example, is a small one, an almost insignificant one, in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. Ginny is sitting on the floor in the common room, reading a newspaper with her back against Harry's knees. Some of her brothers are there, too, playing wizards' chess. They're all teasing each other and having side conversations with each other and something about Harry having a hipogriff tattoo. They're all doing their own things: but they're doing it, intimately, together. It warms my heart, every time.

Similarly, my favorite scenes in Grey's Anatomy are ensemble scenes: I love the relationships that aren't the main focus of the show. Alex and Cristina. George and Cristina. (I just really love Cristina, okay?) Burke and Alex. 

So, like in HARRY POTTER, one of my favorite Grey's scenes is a really basic one. An ensemble scene, where they're all studying for their boards, and they're all having side conversations and little nervous and excited mannerisms. They're all living their own, full, independent lives, and you can tell from how they're all doing their own thing: but they're doing it together.

It's those little things -- those tiny interactions between characters whose relationships aren't what the story is about -- that can make or break rich worlds and sweeping plots.

Build them out, even if it's just in your own notebook or google doc of character files. 

It'll show up in your writing. I promise.

Pro tip: these questions are especially important for characters who aren't your POV (point of view) characters. Make sure you're always, always, always thinking about the motivations and backgrounds of your "side" characters and love interests. Even if you don't go out of your way to explicitly tell your readers about it: trust me. They'll know.

And your stories will be all the richer for it.

The Sweet (and Stressful) Sound of Character Development

Ahh, tumblr. The home of wonderful and wonderfully important questions!

A great Anon with an unfortunate computer issue asked: "Hi Jenn! I was wondering if you had any character development sheets you used, or any that you really liked? I used to have one I used often, which helped round out my characters, but lost it when my computer got a virus and had to be wiped. Can't wait for your book!"


Oh my! I’m so sorry about your computer virus: boooooo.

I don’t use worksheets, per se, but I do have a bunch of exercises that I love using, especially when I’m feeling like I’m in a writing rut.

First, I absolutely love writing lists of “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character.” I don’t like the idea of keeping secrets from readers; that’s not what the exercise is about for me. For me, it’s about all the little things that make a person… well, a person! Little facts about their first crushes, their friendships, their random fears, random incidents that they’ve experienced, that might not directly show up in the book, but will probably show through in their behavior and feelings somehow.

For example, think of headcanons that fans often make about TV show characters or book characters. For example, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books has difficulty conjuring a Patronus, but can handle basically every other spell no problem.

Because of this, I have long-since believed ("headcanonned") that Hermione experiences some form of depression, like me: conjuring a Patronus Charm involves the ability to wipe your mind and body clean of fear and doubt and overwhelming sadness and just focus on a happy memory inside you. Hermione has so much trouble with that, consistently. But, nothing in the books ever says this about her flat-out.

Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

So, if I were writing a “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character,” I might write a lot about Hermione’s experiences with depressive episodes before Hogwarts and even during her Hogwarts years.

Then again, if it were me, I would explicitly discuss it in the books, as well, because representation is soooo important! That said, the “20 Things” exercise is such a great way to learn about your characters that it might become a “20 Things I Need to Make Sure Readers Know about X Character”!!! (Just make sure you weave the information seamlessly into the narrative so you’re not just info-dumping information about them!)

And, I also like writing fan fiction about my characters.

For example, with LUNAV, my debut novel, it’s set in a fantasy world, right? So, sometimes I wonder: what if Sadie and Evelyn went on a date in this world, in this very restaurant? What if they were students in New York City? What if they were my students? What if they met in a coffee shop in this world instead of in a forest full of snow and magic in the land of Lunav?

Those are super fun to write, and they give a lot of insight into who these people are, and how their environments shape them, and what the cores of their personalities are. Just like a well-written fan fiction AU, it takes a lot of knowledge of a character to keep them consistently in character even when you’re writing them in a completely different situation than the ones they usually find themselves in.

I know those things aren’t worksheets, but I hope they’re helpful anyway!! Feel free to ask more questions: this was a great one!

Your characters are going to be amazing :)