#NaNoWriMo – Creating realistic characters.

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Welcome to November hell, aka NaNoWriMo, if you’re a writer participating in the annual masochistic practice.

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One of the things readers frequently mention to me is they love my characters, how “real” they are. There’s not any mystery to what I do–I write what my characters tell me to. Sometimes, this means my characters act in ways I don’t expect.

The biggest thing I do, however, is I focus a lot on dialogue.

There are different “kinds” of dialogue. The mistake I see new writers make the most is unrealistic dialogue. Sometimes, they “as you know, Bob” info-dump.

“As you know, Bob, we moved here in 1973, and there were a series of horrific murders.”

“Oh, I know Al, I remember how horrible they were. Ten different murders, and all of them single women.”

“Oh, and remember how the cops didn’t catch the guy?”

…Et cetera.

“As you know, Bob,” is a lazy way to impart information. Some writers think if they’re creating dialogue that tells this info, they’re avoiding an info dump, when the exact opposite is happening. It’s also not realistic. Two characters who both knew what happened aren’t going to talk to each other like that. (They also usually don’t use each other’s names in every line of dialogue, another common issue newbie writers have.)

Now, if they were talking to a third party who doesn’t know the info, that would help. Like so:

Chelsea took a seat at the diner’s counter. “Seems to be a quiet town.”

Bob snorted. “You weren’t living here in 1973.”

“What do you mean?” Chelsea asked.

Al and Bob exchanged a knowing glance across the counter, and for a moment, it looked like they engaged in a silent debate about who was going to speak.

Apparently, Al got to do the honors. “They never caught the guy. Not even after he murdered ten single women.”

Bob shuddered. “Very gruesome business.” He turned for the coffeemaker and grabbed the carafe, as if he needed an anchor to today. He turned back and offered it to her. “Coffee, miss?”

See the difference? One feels natural, the other doesn’t.

Another common issue I’ll see is characters who don’t talk realistically. That’s a harder issue to show, because there are just soooo many ways dialogue can go off the rails. Using dialogue is one way to differentiate your characters from one another, and I don’t mean using caricatures or stereotypes. Listen to how people talk in real life. Your hero might be a man of few words, which makes him come off broody to the heroine, until she gets to know him and learns that he grew up with abusive parents who criticized him, so his coping skill became to stay quiet and unnoticed. Until he starts to trust her, and then starts to open up a little. (Doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly become a chatterbox, though.)

You might have a character who’s a bit snooty and occasionally tosses in a $5 word when a simpler one will do. (Again, watch out and don’t take this too far, because you don’t want to create caricatures.)

But, for example, especially in romances/works containing a romantic theme, don’t have heroes who don’t talk like men in real life. I once DNF’d a book because the hero kept referring to the heroine’s hair accessories as “fripperies” and it wasn’t a historical, either. And it wasn’t used just once in an ironic way, either.

Also, watch out, in historicals, not to use phrases that weren’t used in that time period.

In sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal, if your characters use lingo/slang that’s specific to the world you’ve built, make yourself a reference sheet so you use it consistently throughout the manuscript.

Another pitfall I’ve personally had happen to me was one time, an editor, who was apparently an English major, literally removed ALL contractions from my dialogue.

What. The. Actual Fuck?

I was pissed off, to say the least. I don’t mean one or two–I mean EVERY contraction. I had to refuse all changes, because it would have taken me forever to edit, and asked my publisher NEVER assign that editor to me again, and why.

You cannot eliminate ALL contractions. You just can’t. Not unless there’s a damn good reason to, like it’s a historical. (Which this wasn’t.) Even then, they had some contractions specific to different time periods, slang and lingo they used.

So back to my starting point–how do I create realistic characters?

I don’t try to force them into pigeonholes. I “talk” to them. I let them go places that I might not have taken them. Or I might know the destination, and they find an alternate path that is, ultimately, truer to them.

When you try to force characters to do stuff YOU want them to do, that’s the easiest path to flat characters doing unrealistic things. Let your characters have foibles and short-comings. They have nervous tics, and tells when they lie. They have hopes and dreams. They have fears both rational and irrational, minor and mind-crushing. They survived pain and loss and had a few victories here and there. Let them be imperfect. Let them be human. Let the big scary guy have an irrational fear of spiders, or a desperate need to save a kitten he spotted at the side of the road, in the rain, and now his fancy shoes are ruined because he got out to rescue it. Which leaves the heroine pissed off at him for being late/showing up a mess, and he doesn’t explain why because she pissed him off by his reaction, so he leaves and…

Well, look at that! CONFLICT.

Conflict drives your story. Perfect characters behaving in perfectly predictable ways doesn’t automatically create conflict just because you wrote it into the plot. Conflict is the heroine being annoyed to the point of insanity by the hero chewing his celery the wrong way. (Or maybe he chews it like that knowing it bothers her and is trying to get her to pay attention to him in their busy office, because he’s afraid to really talk to her…)

Conflict is the hero driving and listening to music and the heroine talking over his favorite jam and he’s trying to be nice and bites his tongue until he snaps.

Conflict is the heroine bolting because something accidentally triggered her when the hero smashes his knuckles while trying to turn wrenches on the car, but her dad used to yell like that, so she panics and storms inside and slams the door, and the hero… ?

See what I mean?


Real characters–real PEOPLE–have conflict. Big conflict, little conflict–every day there is friction between people. Sometimes earth-shattering, sometimes just minor annoyances.

But conflict drives your story.

There are times I will write a scene with just dialogue and go back and add “stage direction” (action tags) later. Once I do that, I can “block” the scene in my head and add actions that help fill in what’s going on as well as emotions. Because it gets reeeeeally boring if you use “he said” and “she said” after every single fucking line of dialogue.

Bringing me to another point–I know some people insist on you MUST ONLY USE SAID/ASKED.

I call bullshit.

I also call bullshit on using a shit-ton of different descriptors that are an attempt to hide weak writing. Take a look at the following:

“What are you doing?” she screamed.

Now, look at this:

She stared, slack-jawed, as she tried to process the sight. “What are you doing?” He jumped at her shriek and turned to face her.

See the difference? The first one tells you what happened, and the second one shows you what happened.

The best tip I can give you to crafting realistic characters is to focus on your dialogue. Maybe write out a scene with nothing but dialogue, but also avoid putting info dumps into your dialogue. Think of what the characters would be doing during the scene. Picture it as a movie in your mind, then go back and fill in with that. Using attributed actions means less dialog tags to use, meaning the writing will flow more naturally. Doesn’t mean you can’t use any dialogue tags, but you’ll see when and where you can do away with them.

Characters need to have dreams, goals, fears. They need to feel real to you, even minor characters. Interview your characters, if you need to, to see what’s going on in their heads. Have them write you a letter. (Or write a letter to another character, depending on the story you’re telling.) If you get blocked, or stuck, that’s another easy way to try to work through it. Just because the material won’t make it into the story doesn’t mean it won’t help you finish it.

Happy Writing!

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#NaNoWriMo – Creating realistic characters.