Welcome back to the RADblog!
As you know, this year we’re starting to focus on month-long series’ instead of changing the topic every week. Last month was all about writing a short novel all the way through in thirty days, but this month, I thought it’d be good to get into some of the technicalities.
Characters are one of the things many writers struggle with, whether they realize it or not. For a lot of us, we focus on the story and the pacing and plot before settling at all upon who our characters are and what they’re doing. I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve read, submitted to RAD, where the characters feel like an afterthought in the story. But I can tell you that it’s a grave mistake to write this way. Characters are the biggest thing our readers attach themselves to, and as such, characters are something we, as writers, have to be able to do right.
This month then, I’m going to give you four pointers on how to make your characters as real as possible, to make them jump off the page and feel to your readers as though they were really alive.
First, make a study of people.
It’s something I tell every single writer I know, whether they ignore me or not. If you’re not willing to make a study of people, then you shouldn’t even bother writing a novel at all. At least, not a novel with characters that the reader should attach themselves to. If you’re going for a World War Z vibe, then you’re fine (but remember, World War Z style books are even harder to get right in the long run).
The first thing I always tell writers to do when it comes to learning how to make characters is to go out and people watch—and yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you to do. But I don’t just want you to watch them, I want you to study them.
Take a notepad and pencil with you. Write down what you see. Notice little movements people do when they’re talking, watch when they smile and frown, look at the people staring at the floor and the people who keep their eyes on the path before them. Don’t just focus on the people who are fun and pleasant to watch. Look at the homeless people, the drunk people, the depressed and sad people, and take notes on how you know they are the way they are (for instance, a sad person is more likely to keep their shoulders slumped and their eyes lowered, while a happy person might keep their shoulders squared and their eyes on the crowd).
Get deep with it. If you’re feeling brave, go talk to some people and find out what makes them tick. Do your best to understand people, to get to know them from the inside out, so when you start to write your characters, you know the way this person might behave.
But remember, that’s just the first step. You have to make a study of something, you have to know a thing, before you can write it. After all, it’s one of the cardinal rules of writing:
Write what you know.
And if you don’t know people very well, then you’re definitely not ready to write them. Harsh, yes, but it’s true. Don’t worry though; making a study of people isn’t as hard as you might think. Many of these things you might already know, but you won’t realize it until you start writing it down, taking notes on the people you see.
Next week, we’ll talk about ignoring the formalities—something a lot of writers get completely wrong when reaching for realistic characters.
Associate Editor, Etc.