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Real Characters and Not Puppets

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1 Real Characters and Not Puppets on Tue Jun 23, 2009 2:02 pm

Unbelievable Actions

We have all seen this happen, in books, in plays, in films, and most especially in TV soaps, where one or more characters in a sudden unexpected and usually irritating illogical twist decide to behave in the most absurd and unbelievable manner. You know, like when following several chapters of troubled emotions your main character suddenly realizes that he was never really in love with her after all and that he'd be much better off with this girl he just met on the bus, or that his lover was actually his long-lost half-sister! Well in TV soaps, such hard-to-accept and unbelievable plots sometimes have to be quickly inserted and twisted simply to accommodate some real-life mishap on the set, but inside a written novel this is quite unacceptable. When an author needs to overcome some afterthought, to elongate or complicate the plot, or simply to overcome an overlooked flaw will do better to go back and re-write or modify the previous events to make things more believable. Your work is to be read by real persons who quite often end up associating themselves with the main actors in your plot, so when your leading character suddenly chooses to start behaving like a dummy, your reader may very well choose to drop your book.


Put yourself in there

Think out your plot carefully, and especially when it comes to those sticky situations. Place yourself instead of that character and try to see how you would have reacted, felt, or behaved in those circumstances. Would you have done that or believed that or reacted in that manner? Would you really have abandoned your ten-year relationship because you came across one suspicious letter inside a closet? Would you really have accepted that silly excuse he or she came up with following days if not months of illicit behaviour? If you'd received a text-message by a not-too-close friend in the middle of the night asking you to pack your stuff, pick up a couple of friends and leave home for a cross-continent trip, would you really have unquestioningly done that without even calling your her? Believe or not these are examples from real works. Some of the biggest problems in romance novels stem from illogical characters doing the most absurd things.

Plot and characters depend on each other to function. You simply cannot force your characters to do things that go against the grain simply to accomodate your lack of planning. Characters must portray real people and therefore they must behave that way. Having said that, it is also quite true that sometimes real life is stranger than fiction and that people at times can be unpredictable and actually do the strangest of things; I for one can vouch for that, but that's another story!


Build up to Events

Still one has to build up to such events, sort of prepare and develop the character in the right direction so that when the odd behavior or incident comes along, the reader can expect or even better accept it. Lets say in the previous example of the break-up above, one can go back in the story and stick in a trivial incident here and there which though being safely acceptable and meaningless in their own right, yet re-enforce and give more credibility to the final perhaps irrational behavior. Another method is to emphasize that character's vulnerabilities and perhaps emotional instability prior to the unexpected event. Of course, here prior signifies a build-up from long before and not just on the previous page.

There is nothing too extraordinary about irrational behavior, people do it all the time, the only thing is that people are driven towards that by external circumstances and strong emotions. So, do not just rely on the cold relating of the event itself to convey that emotion, but you have to build it up. Consider this: How many times did you overreact in some circumstance and looking back or recalling things the following day you felt like a complete idiot? Why? Because the next morning you could see things more rationally without the accompanying emotion and that is exactly how your reader is seeing your character if you do not also make that reader join in your character's emotion.
So if you're describing anger, pain, stress, sadness, you have to build up that same emotion in the reader to make him or her feel that anger or that pain, or those tears or whatever, so that he or she can then empathize with your character and therefore not only more readily accept that wierd behavior but may be even expect it.


Build up your Characters

One common mistake carried out by authors here is that such preparatory or 'build-up' info is supplied too early in the character's introduction into the plot and not followed upon and thus forgotten by the time that info is needed. Such important details are sometimes overlooked or discarded by the reader because readers tend to accumulate and build-up a mental picture of the main characters only while skimming over the rest. A detail introduced too early within a character's introduction when it is not yet clear that such a character is just passing through or becoming a crucial part of the story can therefore be fatal, unless of course such a detail is too shocking to be that easily skimmed over.

It is a good idea to introduce characters in the same way we meet new people every day, you barely recall a person's name following the first encounter, let alone all the bodily and facial features, all the character traits, plus their life history. You get to know a person gradually, and that is the best way to build up your 'real' characters. Do keep in mind that your readers aren't jotting down all these details in a notebook as they're going through your book, so try not to overload them with more details than they can absorb within each 'session'. This is especially so if such details are imperative to the expanding plot later on, and if that is the case you may always emphasize or remind by means of an incident, by dialogue or perhaps by a flashback to ensure you get the message through. Very often in real life we find ourselves judging or labeling a person we've just met and more often than not we tend to change that initial 'picture' the more we get to know them. Try translating that into your narrative. Never give you character's traits away immediately but rather ensure that a gradual revelation progresses as the story evolves. This also avoids having stereotypes in your narrative and helps in achieving a 'character growth' of your main protagonists. After all if people didn't change, we wouldn't have so many break-ups, would we?


Avoid Moralisms

A common mistake which many new authors tend to make is to automatically filter out any bad traits, foul language, or general bad behavior from their fictitious roles, especially when such circumstances, attitude or behavior concerns some crucial acceptable norms as expected by today’️s society. This is especially true when it comes to treating borderline or taboo subjects such as sexual perversion or behavior, violence, abuse, or drug and alcohol intake. However the same point is also valid when considering other less crucial matters such as inter-personal, marital or affective relationships, affidability or faithfulness.

Very often, we look to ourselves for inspiration of our first characters except that we unconsciously portray our projected rather than our actual image which is basically how we would want others to see us rather than our true selves. The problem is that we are so used to living such lies in our everyday life that it is too easy to pass this on to your characters. But the truth is that the human race is as perverse as it can get, you only have to refer to your favorite daily to realize that there are some nasty and wierd people and things going on out there. So real life characters cannot be modern day saints unless you want to write about Mother Theresa. They do drink, they do have affairs, they do become angry and violent, they are mean to friends and colleagues, they are selfish. That of course does not mean that you cannot have good honest people in your characters, but just keep this in mind to strike a balance.


Real Characters, Real People

One safe way of creating 'real' characters is by basing them on real people, especially persons we know well. That of course does not mean that the people in your plot are based on just you, your friends or your immediate family as that would not give much room for diversity. Have a look at your colleagues at work, your neighbors, your school teacher, your doctor, the bartender at your favorite joint or simply the taxi driver or the person next to you on the bus every morning. Nowadays it only takes a little browsing to social-network sites such as 'MySpace', 'Facebook' or 'Hi5' and you can pick a few ready-made characters with all the properties, likes and dislikes all there - (obviously change names!). Whether you pick a real, imaginary, or a hybrid personality; study them, picture them, give them a 'name' and start building up a portfolio on them. This is what I call my 'Personality Chart' and which you must keep next to but separate from your book.

Build on it, write descriptions, notes, traits, peculiarities, likes and dislikes, and important events in there. As the story develops and the characters start interacting, you'll find these a very useful resource which you'll be referring and updating accordingly. If anything it will just help you to be consistent, like what color eyes did I say she had somewhere back in chapter two? You don't have to transfer all the info in there to your novel but it would simply help you along in its development.

So, now when your character is faced by such and such a situation, stop and refer to that character's portfolio and see things from his point of view. How would he or she react to it? For example, you may have decided that your character was bullied as a young kid at school. This bit of info itself is not relevant to the story so it may not figure in it but it will help you decide how that character shall react when confronted by aggression somewhere along the plot.

Working in this manner sometimes deviates your plot to some extent as your characters become more alive, they start misbehaving and refusing to go along your original plot. Sometimes this may distract but yet at other times such characters tend to create some interesting sub-plots which otherwise would have never emerged. This approach is particularly adapted at making realistic dialogues, because now you can ‘look’️ at this realistic person and decide what he or she would answer to that particular question or phrase.


Be Creative and Colorful

When you get the hang of capturing all these real persons with all their detailed descriptions, their peculiarities, and relevant information, you can start the real fun. Try mixing things up a bit, like what would Mr. so-and-so be like if he was to be a woman, or what would my local parish priest be like if he had my boss's character? You get the picture, kind of like a mix & match thing. Play around with your would-be characters and place one's eccentric or particular behavior into another's body, add another's lifestyle and yet another's past and bang - you have a brand new personality ready to jump in and take over your plot.

Above all, be imaginative and try creating a completely new person from the first total stranger you come across. Don't just stop there, but also give your characters a past, give them a childhood, past loves or broken marriages, a level of education, a social status, a nationality, a taste in food and clothes. As we already saw above, not much of this will be relevant to the story or necessarily show up in it at all, but it will definitely help out in assessing that person's dialogues, thought patterns and behavior when you drop him or her into your plot. Basically if you want to have real characters, give them a life. Of course there's one big problem in this approach, things can get so much fun that you may just get so engrossed by your creations that you'll forget all about your book!


Evolve your Characters

People change! No one of us is the same person with the same ideals, behavior and thoughts of some years ago. (Yeah, tell me about it, I just tried reading something I wrote 5 years ago!) We change and adapt according to all that is happening around us, we change styles, eating habits, jobs, cities, tastes, leisure, pastimes and above all we change attitudes, we get over things or we shy off and close up after some recent hurt.

The same must happen to your characters. They cannot be flat and colorless, they cannot remain untouched and immune to all that's happening around them, they must have emotions, they must have personal feelings, they must harbor hurts and grudges, they must learn from their mistakes, they must react, they communicate, they share, they build new friendships and relationships and they also ignore or discard present ones. Basically people are not androids, they change and evolve accordingly. This is more so and more important if your novel is covering a large time span or walking through a character's life. Show some humanity in your characters, show them maturing through or maybe even breaking down under the imposed events in your character's life.

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