Walking the Tightrope – Making Characters Real Without Making Them Really Boring

We all face that struggle of how to make our characters into people, but if you are one of those writers who have tried to take a real person and plop them onto the page, you might have come to the startling realization that people do not make good characters. Real people are confused, slow to act, distracted by the everyday, often don’t know what they want or what their purpose is, thus making them, quite frankly, too boring and unlikable to serve a story.

So, this got me thinking. What is it about a character that makes them seem like people when real people make such bad characters?

I think it comes down to characters being not so much fictional people as distilled people. Characters are us, stripped down to the core.

Emotionally, people are unfathomable. We have so many layers to our psyches even we don’t know it all. Yet, when constructing a character, we writers like to start out with the barest sparks of a person. We trap our characters in roles and archetypes and then fill them out just enough to make them seem realistic without diluting them so much that they become one of us confused, distracted, and oblivious people. The trick, I think isn’t so much the creation. You can make a character as complicated and convoluted as you like. The tick is what you put on the page. As I’m sure we’ve all heard, what’s on the page is barely the tip of the iceberg. While the reader rarely gets to see everything below the waterline, it still has to be there, peaking through even when no one is really paying attention. It’s easy to get carried away, plastering every nook and cranny of the character’s psyche on the page. Where a writer puts the waterline is a personal choice, but real people have unknowable depths that even they aren’t aware of. It’s important that the character (and therefore the reader) be forced to figure things out without it being blatant.

But also, the moments that we choose to show the reader are also stripped down. I mean really, how many stories are about a person who has to deal with everything that a real person has to deal with. Most of use have multiple conflicts. Mortgages, injuries, family disfunction, bad coworkers, and what have you, all at once, all the time. Characters don’t. These issues are only important as long as they impact the story, and usually one or two at a time as the story dictates. As soon as one stops being relevant, it miraculously gets rectified one way or another, and we move on to the next. Thus a breakup or moral dilemma becomes all-encompassing – as if nothing else is happening in that character’s life, or the lives of the characters they interact with. Characters skip over the boring parts with such regular alacrity that those issues don’t exist for all intents and purposes.

And, yes, that scene where the character wakes up in the morning an goes about his normal day might indeed show how lonely yet witty and intelligent he is, but how does that serve the story, and therefore the character? Stories are, for the most part, about people doing something important. Maybe it’s a small thing, that only really impacts the character, or something big that saves the world, but in the end, the character and the story have to go hand in hand. What the reader is shown is hugely important as it both drives the story forward, but also deepens our relationship with the character.

Maybe part of the reason we like characters to be stripped down people is that we like having something knowable and explainable when real life isn’t. It’s nice to visit a world were things make sense. Maybe we human beings are just not capable of understanding ourselves well enough to make reality more appealing in the written form. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just overthinking things.

As a writer, I know that creating a believable character is very much like walking a tightrope. A little too much leaning either way, and you fall into confusion or boredom or, if you’re really unlucky, both. Yet, if you can find the right balance, it feels like the characters are real. Those are the ones that stay with you.

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