Creating Realistic Characters
by Christina June
One of the very first authors I ever heard speak mentioned she is a terrible person to sit next to on an airplane because she eavesdrops. She steals. I heard that and was like, wow, yeah, that’s what we do. Authors are scavengers and collectors. We take pieces from real life and recycle them into our books.
As writers, in order to get things right in our book worlds—contemporary, fantasy, scifi, whatever—we have to observe the world around us. We need to see how an actual living, breathing human being reacts to something so we can make sure our fictional character should do it. We need to pay attention to situations and details, the order of operations, seasons and weather, rules and conventions, interests and preferences, to make sure that the things in our stories are believable.
In IT STARTED WITH GOODBYE, I steal a lot. And mostly from myself. My main character, Tatum, happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and winds up on house arrest for the summer, with a big fine to pay. Now, this exact thing has never happened to me, but many times I’ve been angry at the circumstances I found myself in. I channeled those feelings to make Tatum’s righteous indignation come to life on the page. Her inner monologue is pretty close to mine at sixteen…and potentially now too.
Smaller things I stole from my life: Tatum’s Eiffel Tower-shaped lamp exists in my guest room, her Magritte poster is on the wall in my office, her love for peppermint tea and cooking shows are mine as well. The songs and bands she likes are my favorites and the emotions she feels while listening are all mine. Her love interest’s favorites include weight-lifting and watching rugby—stole those from my husband.
I’ve also been known to swipe (with permission) friends’ family members’ names, hair and clothing styles, alma maters, favorite meals or restaurants, interesting tidbits, experiences that I haven’t had myself but fit in with a story, etc. I work with teenagers in my day job and while I draw the line at stealing their personal details, I am frequently inspired by the general situations they find themselves in or the emotions they’re experiencing. I confer with writer friends on the smallest of details to make sure that this is the way it would be in reality. In this way, writing is most certainly not a solitary adventure. If we only relied on ourselves, our books wouldn’t be nearly as compelling.
If you write fantasy or scifi, your characters still need to be believable, so there is not shortage of observing others for these genres. That warrior from Mars who loses his friend in battle? His grief should be realistic. Time traveling back a thousand years? Even though the details were different, emotions haven’t changed much. Characters in all genres (probably) need clothes and favorite foods and interests and feelings. They need backgrounds and experiences to make them come alive in the mind of our readers. Authors should rely on our power of observation and collection to make characters—no matter where, what or when they are—real.
If you’re borrowing something personal, absolutely get permission. If you’re writing outside your own experience, get it verified. Rely on subject-matter experts, sensitivity readers, interviews, and other primary sources to make sure you’re getting it right. Do the story justice. Listen and observe before you move forward.
And, the next time you’re on an airplane, maybe think about taking the middle seat. You never know what kind of conversation you might wind up in with your seatmates. It might even inspire the next best seller.
Christina June writes young adult contemporary fiction when she’s not writing college recommendation letters during her day job as a school counselor. She loves the little moments in life that help someone discover who they’re meant to become—whether it’s her students or her characters. Christina is a voracious reader, loves to travel, eats too many cupcakes, and hopes to one day be bicoastal—the east coast of the U.S. and the east coast of Scotland. She lives just outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and daughter. Christina’s debut, IT STARTED WITH GOODBYE, releases May 9, 2017. A companion novel, EVERYWHERE YOU WANT TO BE, will be published in 2018.
It Started With Goodbye
Paperback, 304 pages
May 9th 2017 by Blink/HarperCollins
Sixteen-year-old Tatum Elsea is bracing for the worst summer of her life. After being falsely accused of a crime, she’s stuck under stepmother-imposed house arrest and her BFF’s gone ghost. Tatum fills her newfound free time with community service by day and working at her covert graphic design business at night (which includes trading emails with a cute cello-playing client). When Tatum discovers she’s not the only one in the house keeping secrets, she finds she has the chance to make amends with her family and friends. Equipped with a new perspective, and assisted by her feisty step-abuela-slash-fairy-godmother, Tatum is ready to start fresh and maybe even get her happy ending along the way.
A modern play on the Cinderella story arc, Christina June’s IT STARTED WITH GOODBYE shows us that sometimes going after what you want means breaking the rules.
A big thank you to Christina, as you’ve touched on a topic that is in need of further explanation and exploration. We all struggle with making our characters seem as realistic as possible, even in fantasy worlds, and the best way to create them is to draw from what you know: real people. =)
As always, a huge thank you to everyone who has participated in this feature. Your words are appreciated for more than you’ll ever know. We are always thankful for your words of advice and support.
We hope you have a wonderful rest of your week, and a very happy Easter to those who celebrate!