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Author Topic: How do you keep your characters realistic?  (Read 11031 times)

Offline Overlord

How do you keep your characters realistic?
« on: April 24, 2014, 05:55:13 PM »
From today's article:

The fantasy genre is about the imagination, so it might seem strange to talk about realism in your work, but hear me out. Your characters are what sell your story, especially in the fantasy genre. When the world is utterly bizarre, it is the characters that ground the story in something the reader can relate to. Realistic, well written characters help a reader to lose themselves in the story, to forget for a time that it’s fiction.

It can be hard to create such individuals in a setting where dragons travel the skies, with all the magic and wonder of the world it can be easy to get swept along. Pretty soon your book is filled with dark sorcerers, dashing heroes and hideous monsters. Even if you don’t fall into the trap of outright clichés it can end up difficult to take a character seriously when the trappings of fantasy take hold.

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As a writer, in your stories do you find it difficult to create fantastical and yet realistic characters? What are the rules you set yourself to get that balance right?
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Offline asabo

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #1 on: April 24, 2014, 06:22:55 PM »
Two things came to mind. A character that didn't really experience emotion in the way she was written. And a point I read somewhere that something must be expressed at least three times for it to impact the reader.

The character deals with great losses and mourned, briefly. It just felt to me like she breezed through the experience. Maybe if it had been referenced a couple more times it would have hit me as a reader. I also think the writer was trying to portray the woman as very strong, but that doesn't mean emotionless.

I think internal reaction has a big place in the reader connecting with the character. In a story I'm working on a character interacts with a child in a very kind and gentle way, although I've set him up as scary. The feedback from my readers is that makes him very sympathetic. And all of it is internal, so he still shows a brusque front.

Also interaction with the environment. I read a sample of descriptions from various points of view. It was of a restaurants - this one found it cheesy, that one found it familiar and comfortable, and a third found it disgusting. Having the character think about sticky tables and crusty forks reflects on both the environment and the character. A scene like that can really set the tone for a character. If it says he ignored the sticky table, or he went and got a towel to clean it, or demanded the waitress clean it, all describe different personalities. And simple, common actions like that ground the character for the reader. IMHO.
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Offline David Gullen

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #2 on: April 24, 2014, 10:17:09 PM »
I don't think it's much different from writing in any genre - the characters need to behave consistently according to their own motivations - i.e. stay true to the nature you've created for them; and you have to care about them - each and every one.

Offline Nyki Blatchley

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #3 on: April 24, 2014, 10:56:25 PM »
There's also the opposite problem, that characters have to behave consistently with their environment and society. There's an endemic problem, particularly in period drama on TV (including "period" fantasy), that the characters often seem just like modern people in fancy dress. A sympathetic character's views will normally be just a little on our side of their society's norms.  For instance, if it's a society that has slavery, they'd dislike it (otherwise it would be hard for a modern reader/viewer to sympathise with them) but they wouldn't feel quite the same as we would about it.

Of course, a fantasy author can make their society any way they like, but it has to be internally credible, and that extends to views and patterns of thought as much as anything.  Fundamentally, humans are always the same, but that's always filtered through a specific society.

Offline Elfy

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Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #4 on: April 25, 2014, 12:39:08 AM »
Just because a character may happen to be an elf or a dwarf or a human in a fantastical setting doesn't mean that they're not expected to act consistently and in a way that reflects the culture and world that has been created for them. Characters can make or break any book, fantasy or not, so care needs to be taken with them to have them act and speak in a manner that the reader can identify with and accept as being consistent and realistic for what has been established.
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Offline RocknRollnWrite

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #5 on: April 25, 2014, 10:22:10 AM »
My stories don't have too many 'fantastical' elements, with the exception of Gods and a little bit of what could be magic, or could be god-interference, so the setting isn't too difficult in that sense.

I have different types of people doing different things - townfolk don't like the forests, forestfolk don't like the towns etc. Townsfolk don't let women fight and think the forestfolk are barbaric because they do.

But within those people types there need to be individuals who look at things slightly differently. A town woman who's prepared to live in the forest because she loves a forest man; a crippled warrior forced to retire to the safety and relative ease of the towns. A bad guy with a strangely gentle heart etc etc.

I think the most important thing is that the characters have to be three-dimensional and utterly real. They need reasons for their actions - even if those reasons are kept a secret from the reader for most of a story, there still needs to be an underlying, complex basis for their actions. As long as this is in place, an internal structure that the character believes in, you can get away with quite a lot.
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Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #6 on: May 08, 2014, 08:41:35 PM »
I wish I could post in Dutch. Your opening-post, Overlord, is almost what my inspiration was for writing a series of guest-blogs about creating believable characters (for a Dutch fantasy-website). I might try to translate them one of these days.

There are some wise things said already. Thinking about positives and flaws is a good one. Especially when writing the 'villain'.
But something I often miss in the stories I read (when judging for a writing contest, for instance) is the lack of a past and a future. A good character should have a complete life, he or she should not live only in the moment of the story. And he or she should have a bigger life than the story alone. Like a family and a job, for example. Who will walk the dog while your hero is on a quest?

It are the little things that make your character truly believable. Things that I also experience in my life, although the characters in fantasy live in a completely different world than I do.

I hope this makes sence.
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Offline Ulramar

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #7 on: May 08, 2014, 10:43:29 PM »
Give them a weakness.

Offline Doctor_Chill

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Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #8 on: May 09, 2014, 12:36:23 AM »
Give them a weakness.

Not only that, but give them a motive.
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Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #9 on: May 09, 2014, 08:01:35 AM »
Give them a weakness.

Not only that, but give them a motive.

Absolutely.

And I think you should judge your characters. Don't think of somebody as the hero or the villain. Just think of them as people. It's to the other characters to decide what they think of eachother. If the writer thinks of somebody as the villain, you might get things like the ugly, evil overlord (not you Marc ;) ), dressed in black, just torturing others because he can. A motive surely helps to make your characters more human.
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Offline J.R. Darewood

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Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #10 on: May 12, 2014, 03:17:17 AM »
I like that, think of them as people.
For me, it's almost like they are separate people living in my head.  I take pieces of people I know or have seen and put parts of their personalities and back histories into a new character, and from then on the character lives on in my head, like someone I could even talk to.  It can be frustrating because I can no longer control the characters, I can only manipulate the environment around them to try and see if they'll go the direction I want to.  Though I gotta say being a DM back in my youth was great preparation for having to learn how to shape my world around character motivations.

Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #11 on: May 13, 2014, 08:18:37 PM »
I like what you're saying about no longer controling the characters, Bradley. I experience the same. I love that part of writing when you discover the solution to your problem because there is only one way your characters can act. And sometimes I feel stupid that I didn't figure it out much earlier, because it is so obvious.

A bit of-topic, but many people say to me: 'Writing fantasy must be so easy, because you can do whatever you want.' But that's only true at the beginning of a new story. Once you've decided who your characters are and what the rules are in your world, you have to follow them.
When I think of it, maybe it's not so far of-topic as I thought. Because creating realistic characters is all about following the rules you've set from the moment you've put the first word on paper.
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Offline Ulramar

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #12 on: May 13, 2014, 08:57:51 PM »
Well I mean you can change the rules in fantasy whenever you want. You can do that in any genre, really. But it has to be part of the plot. If you have (I'm going to use movies for a moment because it's easier to use time as a measurement rather than word count) an hour of a love story and then BAM out of nowhere aliens pour out of space all over the planet and invade and now it's a post-apocalyptic thriller, it's crazy and won't work.

But if it's a main part of the plot, it'll work. You can always change the rules. A war starts (common theme in fantasy) and the rules that once were in place are thrown out of whack.

Back to the main topic, one thing I do is make them me. The six main characters are all me, in a way. Before the "invasion", a theme in the book, they all had the jobs that I've dreamed of. They all have my anxiety, my anger, my fear, my lust for more knowledge, etc. I know them and make them react like they would because they're me. I know how they'll react and how they feel because it's everything that I've felt.

Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #13 on: May 13, 2014, 09:07:39 PM »
I guess that's a good way, because there will be more people who wanted that job, have the same fears, etc. As long as they are not essentially six the same characters, just a little bit different.

Yes, ofcourse you can change the/most rules, but you have to give a very good reason why they are changed. And those reasons have their background in the world and characters you've created.
« Last Edit: May 13, 2014, 09:10:39 PM by Kim ten Tusscher »
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Excerpts for Hydrhaga and Bound in Darkness at: http://kimtentusscher.com/duisteren.html

Offline Ulramar

Re: How do you keep your characters realistic?
« Reply #14 on: May 13, 2014, 09:16:02 PM »
One has a certain bit of my fears. One has a few others. One of them is very bloodthirsty (I'm not I just pushed my anger to the extremes). One's paranoid, the other is anxious, etc.

In my work, the "invasion" pertains to another timeline of Earth invading our timeline. There's absolutely no premise behind it, but I guess I tailored my work to allow that. If it weren't the main plot, it wouldn't work.