Everyone wants to write characters who feel like living, breathing people. After all, that is how readers connect with them, feel for them, and eventually love or hate them—our ultimate goal. Whether you are trying to adequately describe real people, like your parents in your autobiography, or you are creating characters from scratch, such as in a fictional narrative, there are some common mistakes you should avoid.
Mistake #1: Simply Listing Their Characteristics
This is probably the comment I leave the most on manuscripts I am editing. Specific physical description is important, but it should also tell us something about the character’s personality, mood, or state of mind. Don’t just tell me he has big, brown eyes, but instead tell me about how wide and innocent they look, even when he is lying. Tell me about her hair, dull from dry shampoo with three-inch brown roots and knotted into a half-hearted bun. Tell me his rough and calloused hands are often shoved into the pockets of his three-piece suit when he speaks. Use this description as an opportunity to reveal their character instead of simply telling me what body of water their eyes resemble.
Mistake #2: Making Them Perfect
Especially with fictional protagonists, there is a common tendency to make them perfect. They are tall and athletic; they are kind, brave, and understanding. Women have long flowing hair, and men have broad, muscular shoulders. They always have the best of intentions and are everyone’s favorite. Just because he or she is the protagonist does not mean they are flawless—just look at real life. Interesting people have pasts that have marked them with imperfections. Use this to propel their story forward and make them more relatable.
Mistake #3: Ignoring Dialogue and Thoughts
Just like how their actions can reveal their personalities, backgrounds, and moods, so can their speech patterns, use of jargon, and tone. First of all, eliminate as many boring or routine parts of the conversation as you can—everything should be purposeful and keep the story moving. Think about characters’ relationships with each other, and show them through their conversations. What kind of language would someone use with their mother as opposed to their rival or their best friend? When would they use slang, and what kind of slang would they use (remember, make it feel authentic or don’t use it at all!)? How do they speak to others, as opposed to how they think to themselves? (Are they more critical of themselves? Are they more vicious in their thoughts than what they would dare say aloud?)
Mistake #4: Forgetting to Use Their Actions
Everyone reveals themselves when they talk, listen, or wait. Dialogue is a wonderful tool to move a story forward and let readers know what a character sounds like, but using their movement can let us in on a character’s true inner feelings in a way that feels genuine. Are they defensive? Have them cross their arms and stand wide, staring directly at their accuser. Are they insecure? They will probably dart their eyes, play with their hair, or fiddle with something. Their words and actions could even conflict, building a whole new dimension into their personality. Show that they are lying by having them partially cover their mouth or hesitate before responding, representing that moment of fabrication.
If you stay away from these mistakes, your characters will immediately feel more realistic. The golden rule here is to make everything count, every word, every thought, every action, and cut away the rest. Then you will be left with characters your readers will love—or love to hate.