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How to create realistic characters

Posted by inkpop on March 11, 2010

inktip #20: Before I Fall author Lauren Oliver gives advice for keeping it real with your story’s major (and minor) players

“She wasn’t too pretty. She wore semi-awkward clothes that didn’t quite fit her, the way that many people do in high school. She sometimes got zits, and when she did, she obsessed over them.”

This is how Lauren Oliver describes one of her favorite characters, Angela, played by Claire Danes, in the mid-’90s teen drama My So Called Life. “One of the things that made the show so compelling—and so ground-breaking—was the intense believability of its characters,” Oliver says.

Oliver kept Angela in the back (or perhaps at the forefront) of her mind when writing her novel, Before I Fall, about a girl who has it all—“the world’s most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything” … that is, until something goes majorly wrong in her charmed life. Here, Oliver, one of HarperTeen’s youngest authors, shares her tips for creating realistic characters.

AIM FOR TRUTH

“Aim for truth, and beauty will follow. Aim for beauty, and truth will not necessarily follow.”

What’s the moral here? “Always aim for truth,” Oliver says, citing an influential quote from her NYU writing professor, Chuck Wachtel.

Going back to the My So Called Life example, Oliver says Angela’s “truth factor” is rooted in her fundamentally believable emotional landscape. “She worried about the same things I worried about—tension between old and new friends; whether to have sex; what it would be like if she did,” Oliver says. “She felt alienated from her parents, after years of feeling close to them; she didn’t know if she was a good girl or a bad girl or even what those terms meant. Her experience was not just believable, it was deep and truthful—and it was this truth and depth and honesty that made her so believable, if that makes sense.”

FIGURE OUT YOUR CHARACTERS’ GOALS AND DESIRES

Before you get into the nitty-gritty of your character’s personal details, it’s important to realize their major motivations.

To do this, Oliver recommends that writers answer these three questions for all characters, no matter how “minor” you think they are:

  1. What do they want?
  2. What do they need? (“Please note that the answers to #1 and #2 may be in diametric opposition to one another!” Oliver says.)
  3. How are they working to achieve what they want, and is it aiding or preventing them from getting what they need?

 SHOW THAT YOU REALLY KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS

“I’ve always noticed how funny it is that when you only kind of know people, you know all the ‘big-picture’ stuff about them: what they want to do when they graduate, what sports they like to play, what kind of car they drive.”

On the other hand, when you know someone really well, you think about them in a deeper way, in terms of the “kaleidoscope of tiny details” that make them uniquely themselves, Oliver says.

Oliver sites her best friends as examples: “I always forgot what my best friends were majoring in in college, although I could have told you that Anna had to stay away from ranch dressing because once she had a tiny taste of it, she would drink it straight from the bottle; that Laura had been dared to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon by members of the college basketball team; that Magda loved to draw but hated to draw hands, and so always truncated her figures at the wrist.”

In the same way that you learn about your friends’ flavorful bits and pieces, Oliver says the key to creating realistic characters is to show detail and specificity. “To use a metaphor, you need to show us the pores, not the glossy surface,” she says.

BE FAIR TO YOUR CHARACTERS

Keep in mind that “detail” doesn’t have to be “quirks,” Oliver says.

“Teen lit is, in my opinion, full of overly quirky characters,” she says. “A detail might simply be somebody’s habit of coloring on the heel of her shoe when she is bored, or of making a weird slurping sound while drinking, or of unconsciously biting the back of a pen.”

Don’t feel pressure to go overboard. Oliver suggests pulling examples from real life, thinking bout behaviors and habits you’ve observed in people you know.

And, keep in mind that even “boring, cookie-cutter” people are individuals. “Find ways to give them individuality without giving them a proclivity for wearing fuzzy Mickey Mouse ears and subsisting only on chocolate chips,” Oliver says.

SMOOTH OUT DIALOGUE

Though using dialogue directly from real life might work well for TV, movies, and radio, it does not make for dialogue that feels real in literature, and can sometimes feel “annoying and overly stylized,” Oliver says.

Oliver shares this example: “In real life, a friend might ask you to go to dinner and you might say, ‘Um…yeah. Hold on, let me see, I got to check. Um…yeah, maybe, I have this crazy thing I’m supposed to, like, show my face at, but it might be done by, I don’t know, like, eight?’”

While it’s important to avoid conversational clunkiness, it’s also important to avoid formality in speech, unless your characters are particularly formal people—“like, you’ve written a book that takes place in 1875,” Oliver jokes. “I think the best way to learn about dialogue is to read books by writers who are great at it.”

inkpop Forums Topic: Check out the submissions of the inkpop.com writing Challenge inspired by Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall on inkpop Forums.

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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One Response to “How to create realistic characters”

  1. Ms. Oliver’s advice is excellent and explained in a simplisitc fashion. Many characters I see in CSI TV episodes simply aren’t believable. They all speak and act in a universal mode. For example, a NYC Detectective sounds like a polished professor with a perfect speech enunciation and body language that is not befitting. And in reality, such a personality is a rarity in that sector. Cops should talk like cops and Harvard graduates shoud speak and gesture acoordingly. Yet, what amazes me, is that these shows are broadcast, and are quite sucessful.

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