Writing Authentic Characters
Updated: Apr 23
If there’s one thing I’m pretty darn confident in, it’s my characters.
Their personalities, their arcs, their 3D characteristics—to me, my characters feel like real people, and I write them as such.
There’s the odd reviewer who might disagree, or find the character not to their liking, but that’s simply life. I don’t like every real person I meet in real life, why would I expect my readers to be any different?
When I was a newbie writer, I’d write pages and pages on characters before writing. I’d be obsessed with minute details like their favourite food, the mug they drank out of, their childhood best friends, the colour of their room…
For everything we learn about a character, there needs to be a reason. I remember being so annoyed at a friend for asking, “why is this relevant” about a character’s choice of drinking receptacle that I’d spent a paragraph describing. I thought it was fleshing out the character, but what it was was unnecessary. It didn’t teach us anything about the character. It could have done—maybe the cleanliness of it revealed a compulsion, or a slogan on the design hinted at some kind of trait.
But it didn’t. The mug was never mentioned again.
I’m not saying don’t give your characters preferences. I’m just saying think about why and if they’re important, and what those likes and preferences add to the plot. One of my latest characters, Juliana, likes sweet treats—it’s a humorous way to show a softer side of this otherwise steely character. That’s relevant, and her love interest teases her for it. So, food preferences can show something to the reader, but ask what and why. Similarly, the clothes my characters pick frequently tell my readers about them—or how they present themselves to the world.
It’s easy to get bogged down with knowing everything about your character before you start writing them, and then becoming fanactical about including (showing) the reader all of those elements, which can bog down a story, particularly at the start, and actually have the opposite effect than the one you want; it becomes harder for the reader to connect with that character, because knowing what a character likes doesn’t show you who they are.
So, from originally writing pages of character bios, I now write maybe a paragraph.
What do I include there?
A basic description. Something like, “pale, brown eyes, long brown hair. Conventionally attractive. Curvaceous. Round, pleasant features.”
A little of their history. “Raised by a single mother. A little distant from her due to her mother’s secretive nature. Loves her little brother. No fond memories of the father.”
I don’t give much more than this—the rest of the info will be in the synopsis. I might mention a little about their other relationships, but that might be the friends’ section.
What is the most important, for me, is the next part—who are they? What are they like? And how do they change?
3. “Collects stamps. Determined, organised, resourceful.”
4. Longs to break free from their hometown and finally gets the courage to do so after meeting LI.
This section might be a bit longer, but this is the part I really need. This bit colours how I write their story. Whether first person or 3rd, their personality dictates how they see the world, and how I describe it. A person who is into nature is going to use a lot of flower-based metaphors in their perspective. They’ll compare people to trees. Everything will ‘grow’ and ‘blossom’ and ‘wither’. A scientist, though, their perspective is going to be more methodical and factual.
Let’s say these two different characters are describing meeting the exact same person. Character A might say:
She was as pale as a moonbeam, with black hair like a raven’s wing. There was no blossom in her cheeks, no spark to her ice-blue eyes.
Character B might say:
She was startlingly pale, almost anemic, with straight black hair and no blush to her cheeks. Her eyes were flame-blue.
The exact same description… but seen through entirely different eyes.
If you’re writing in multi-POV, it should be clear who is speaking almost at all times, because the way they see the world should be different. My little mermaid, for example, compares everything to the sea. When she moves to land, she describes in great detail the heaviness of things, and how she feels trapped by gravity—nothing has ever been out of reach for her. Truly try to put yourselves in your characters’ shoes and try to imagine how they see the world. It’s more like acting than writing.
Exercises to try:
Describe something from the POV of two very different characters. Go back and read your examples. How can you tell you’re reading different perspectives? What words did you alter and what does this tell us?
Take a walk. Imagine how your MC would see things differently to you. What do they appreciate? What would they dislike?
Read a chapter from another writer that you admire. How do they construct their POV voice? What words and techniques tell you more about them?
Complete the character profile sheet below. Keep it brief, keep it sweet.
After completing the bio, ask yourself ‘where do we learn x about them’? It’s easy to say, “my character is stubborn” but where do we see this? Analyse your own work. Almost be writing an essay on your characters as you write them.
Click on the image below to create your own character profile. (Please make your own copy before editing)
(Many thanks to Chesney Infalt for the character profile idea)