Writing Realistic Book Characters

book charactersCountless book characters, over time, have become almost like friends to those who read their pages. From the first books read to children by their mothers, to the first book someone dubs their favorite, book characters, if written well, have the potential to change lives.

There can be no book without characters, whether those characters are human, animal, or other. The personalities that compose a book, created by the author, are integral to the story being told. How book characters are written will determine their effect on the story and the reader alike. Characters come solely from the mind of the author, whether they’re entirely based on real people or completely a figment of the author’s imagination. This means, unfortunately, that occasionally some book characters aren’t as fleshed out as others, or don’t receive the proper devotion they deserve. As a self-published author, your duty is to create the most intricate characters possible.

Different types of book characters in fiction

There are certain literary characters that can be found in any fictional book. 

  • Protagonist(s): the main or lead character(s), the hero/heroine. The protagonist is the character who goes on the journey of the plot. 
  • Sidekick: more often than not, the protagonist has a trusted friend or loved one who acts as a sidekick (literally a sidekick in comics) and their friendship proves useful in the plot.
  • Love interest: more often than not, the protagonist has a love interest that plays a part in the plot.
  • Antagonist(s): the “bad” guy or villain, whether this is personified in an actual character or a corporation, government, etc.

Conflict types

Just like a book can’t exist without book characters, so too can it not exist without conflict. Conflict, or tension, is where the plot of the book comes from. You’ll remember that in our blog last week, we discussed Freytag’s Pyramid, in which all the conflict comes to a head in the climax. There are several different types of conflict that books can utilize, and with a specific conflict comes common themes and motifs.

  • Man vs. man: this is one of the most common types of conflict in literature. This is where the “good guy” vs. “bad guy” motif come into play. The protagonist has a goal, and the antagonist tries to stop him/her from achieving it.
  • Man vs. self: the character is battling himself/herself. In this conflict type, there’s some sort of internal dissonance that the protagonist is struggling with, whether this is deciding between right or wrong or dealing with a mental illness.
  • Man vs. society: this type of conflict is very common is dystopian/utopian novels. The protagonist is at odds with the government or culture they live in.
  • Man vs. nature: this type of conflict is also very common in dystopian novels. In these novels, the protagonist faces unruly natural disasters of some sort.
  • Man vs. machine/technology: this type of conflict is manifested in the protagonist facing off against robots / some other kind of dire technology.
  • Man vs. supernatural: the protagonist must confront some sort of supernatural being, very common in fantasy books.
  • For more on how to write conflicts, read this blog.

Creating full, well-rounded characters with appropriate conflicts

Writing a book comes with the responsibility to do your very best for the story and the characters. This means writing book characters that are fair and honest representations. A big problem in the publishing world is a lack of representation of certain characters or voices.

One of the biggest arenas where representation is lacking is in the comic book world. Prompted by the wild success of Wonder Woman, Amanda Shendruk of The Pudding, analyzed thousands of comic book characters, only to find that female comic book characters, “are often hyper-sexualized, unnecessarily brutalized, stereotyped, and used as tokens. They’re also rare. Only 26.7 percent of all DC and Marvel characters are female, and only 12 percent of mainstream superhero comics have female protagonists.”

Comic books aren’t the only ones being scrutinized. There’s been a lot of backlash recently concerning male authors write female characters, often reducing them to cliches, stereotypes, or fantasies. Back in October of 2016, Meg Elison flipped this issue, and wrote a satirical (but spot on) essay for McSweeney’s entitled, “If Women Wrote Men the Way Men Write Women.” The article is comical, but it also highlights a major problem in the literary world: not dedicating enough time and respect for certain characters.

This isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom. Self-published authors have the unique opportunity to create diverse, intricate characters that stay true to real life, rather than rely on stereotypes.

Self-publishers write whatever they want – this is one of the main appeals of self-publishing. With no marketing team influencing what is written based on what is “sellable,” authors who choose to self-publish can write characters how they want, not based on what’s sold in the past.

How to create realistic book characters

Even if you’re writing a science fiction or fantasy novel, there’s still ample room to create lifelike characters. It’s especially important to craft meaningful characters when writing books for kids. It can be difficult, definitely, since humans are so intricate and complex, but that’s what writing is all about: capturing the complexity of life and trying to make some sense of it.

Here are some suggestions for writing the best book characters you can:

  • Do a character sketch.
  • Take notes on the people in your life. How do they act? What do they care about?
  • Listen to conversations around you. Notice how people talk.
  • Allow your characters to change or grow. No one stays the same.

However you choose to write your book characters, ensure that you’re putting the utmost care into their creation. Your self-published book will be all the better for it.

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