Writing Characters that Feel Real

The secret of successful writing is having a distinct voice; distinct, but not overbearing.  Your ‘voice’ is the way you distinguish yourself as a writer, but how to find the best voice for your story?  How to make sure each character is not just a carbon copy of yourself, your language, your values and your own life’s experiences? How do we assure each character has, well, believable character?

Jordan Brown, an executive editor with Walden Pond Press and Balzer + Bray at HarperCollins Children’s Books, shared some great tips during two sessions at the SCBWI Summer Conference last weekend:

You want the plot to ask the right questions of your character,

he said.  Ooooo, this struck me.  As we often hear, character drives plot – we feel this as we write, it happens all the time as we type away about a character we’re creating and a new plot suddenly appears around him – but to have the plot reveal deeper character by asking the right questions of him?  – I love this idea, especially when I’m finding my character a bit dull and lifeless.

How many of us ask these things before we start writing?

  1. What does my character want?
  2. What are the stakes for my character?  What happens if he doesn’t get what he wants?
  3. What complicates things?  Why can’t the character get what they want?

Stop what you’re doing and throw your character in a proverbial pot of scolding lava and see what happens.  Will your character surprise you?  Will he reveal a side of himself or a type of language you never imagined?

Do I even know the core of my story?

I always scribble a basic brainstorm or summary of the story I want to create beforehand – a few pages of inspiration in the raw; plot climaxes, basic character personalities and potential growth – and I suppose that summary usually contains some semblance of a ‘core’, but never labelled as such.  Jordan says knowing the core of your manuscript will allow you and your editor to share a vision of what the book is.

According to Jordan, a good story core has three important qualities:

  1. A central element of the story that all readers can ideally relate to – something universal. (For example, in the Hunger Games the concept is survival.)
  2. What is the most formative experience of your character’s life?  He says this is what your book should be about.  (In the Hunger Games it was Katniss being in those scary, traumatizing games.)
  3. And the core should have something your character chooses; some kind of free-agency.  (Katniss chooses to be in the games; she volunteers in order to save her sisters life.  Pretty epic stuff there.)

This translates to me as by knowing your ‘core’ it can help direct your character and plot in a more powerful and believable direction. In my  mind a defined core would assist even the smallest of scenes to build onto the greater purpose of the story; the core.  But Jordan warns how knowing something your character doesn’t can disconnect readers from your story.

Do you ever quit reading a book in the first few chapters because the characters just aren’t believable?  Because it is an utter struggle to carry on reading those non-gripping words page after dull page?

(I have been doing this more and more lately.)  And at the same time, I totally understand where those writers are coming from in their struggle to string interesting words together that have a sense of flow and adventure even in the minor details.  Do you sometimes get stuck making your character’s read real? Likable on some level? Like someone you want to root for even if he/she is totally flawed?  With their own voice, not yours?

Does your character feel real?

Does your character feel real?

Jordan says,

Readers want to feel the character they’re reading is emotionally real.

(There is nothing better to me, I gobble that stuff up like happy pills.)

And the way to get that authenticity is by being specific.  Authenticity = Specificity

YA fantasy author Elana Johnson seconds this.  She suggests a type of specificity too.  In order to gain authenticity, she says:

Choose something unique and have your character use it consistently.

“This is done to develop character, which is one of the parts of voice in a piece of writing. In Scott Westerfeld’s PEEPS, one of the characters calls everyone “Dude.” In Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT saga, Jacob always says, “Sure, sure.” In Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING, her narrating character begins a lot of sentences — both in narration and in dialogue — with “Well”.”

So what Elana did: “In my first novel, my character starts a lot of her sentences with “Yeah”. (ex: Yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If you read my personal blog at all, you’ll notice that I do the same thing.) So I certainly couldn’t do that again (with a new character).”

If you’re drawing blanks with how to make your character more real, Elana suggests a little free-writing with your character – this is not writing your story per say, it is simply placing him or her in a common dilemma like having a crush on his best mates sister for example and then seeing what happens; what evolves when his mate finds out.  She said she discovered her new character’s ‘thing’ this way; his voice, his quirky equivalent of “dude” or “sure, sure” and it made the overall voice of her story strong, not just a replica of her own voice or a voice from a previous book.

But she cautions: Don’t go overboard.

She says,

Don’t get me wrong. Voice is essential in a piece of writing. But it’s essential the same way baking soda is in cookies. No baking soda = flat cookies. No voice = flat writing.

But how much baking soda do you put in? Not as much as the flour. Think about it.

So watch yourself.

Sprinkle it in consistently, but don’t take off the lid and dump it on us.

A final note to authors:

Jordan reminds us that our manuscripts don’t have to be perfect, that,

“As editors, we’re not acquiring your pages. We’re acquiring the vision they represent.”

And revision is the way to get our books to match our vision.


Find editor Jordan Brown’s conference notes here.

You can follow Elana and her cooking tips at her blog here 🙂

Read Elana’s article on voice here.

Buy Elana’s books here.

Cover art by Kyle Sewnarain http://sewnarain.tumblr.com/

Title Art by Kyle Sewnarain http://sewnarain.tumblr.com/

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