17 Ways to Make Your Characters Real

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor, Charlie Pulsipher!

“Imaginary gardens with real toads in them” – Marianne Moore

This is one of my favorite quotes. It sat on the wall in my English class when I was sixteen, catching my attention one day as I pondered the angsty concerns of my teenage life. It has managed to stick with me for roughly two decades, through intentions to become a biochemist, through my career in hotel management, and into the time of my life when I began using words to pay my bills. 

This short quote from a controversial poem colored my writing and guided my characters as I wrote six books and published four of them. My aim is to always fill my imaginary worlds with the realest characters I can manage. Here are a few ideas to help you do the same.

1. Baggage – Humans have issues. We all have lost loves, friends we no longer talk to, and moments that damaged us in some way. If you want your characters to feel real, they need a little wear and tear. The need to feel a little lost and broken inside. We all do.
2. A Solid Name – It seems obvious, but your major characters need a name. We humans love names. They’re how we define our world, so name your main characters well. Choose names that don’t sound too close to one another, that have meaning, that bug your characters, that feel too big for them, or are senseless, but name them and let that name color your character.
3. Realistic Fears – We’re all afraid of something, especially as stress and conflict join the mix, digging new fears to the surface. Spiders, being alone, losing people, not being able to defend ourselves, failing, death, and many more are begging to be part of your real toads. If you truly want to see your characters at their worst and their best, figure out their greatest fears and then make those happen.
4. Irrational Fears – We also have fears that are stupid, and we know it. Those can be a fun tool for your characters too. I am terrified I will lose my keys down a grate. I have a friend who is certain she will lose an eye to a chain link fence if she walks too close to one. Sprinkle these in.
5. Quirks – I use my velociraptor impression to break the ice when I meet new people and to hide my intense social anxiety. Have you ever watched someone wind their gum around their finger, pick in their ears with their keys, or make silly faces while thinking? Humans are weird, quirky things that have strange habits, thoughts, ticks, and reflexes. Make your characters a touch odd and people will see their own weirdness reflected back at them, forming a bond between your readers and the people you’ve created for them to love and hate.
6. Supporting Cast – Real people lean on others to define ourselves, even those who claim not to. We have friends, family, teachers, mentors, idols, enemies, people we love, and people we dislike or hate. You don’t need to show all of these, but the reader has to feel they are there, waiting in the wings.
7. Loves – Just like fears, we all have something that makes us happy. We have comfort foods, people who make us whole, music we adore, books that speak to us, and favorite flavors of ice cream. Give your characters something to love, to enjoy, to be happy about. Then take those away at the right moments.
8. A Voice – I moved around a ton as a kid, picking up bits of my vocabulary from different areas. Some words have a slight Southern accent on them, and accent that grows stronger as I’m around people from Louisiana, but I use slang from Utah. We all have our own way of talking. Each of your characters should sound distinct, based on education, upbringing, how much they read, and their social circles.
9. Hobbies – People are never just one thing. I write, draw, carve, paint, and make cardboard sculptures. I built a teardrop trailer in my garage. I garden. I rock at spreadsheets and math, even though I hate them. We are a mix of traits. Your banker character may play the drums in the subway on his day off. Your dancer may love refinishing furniture from thrift stores. Make them more than the one thing you want to define them as and let them surprise you and your readers.
10. Failings and Flaws – Despite my list of cool hobbies, I’m not good at everything I touch. I know it’s surprising, but I seriously suck at football and I have a terrible time keeping dates straight. I’ve forgotten my own birthday more than once. Your characters should have weak spots, flaws, and things they can’t do. It makes them stretch and grow along the way, just like real people.
11. Addictions – I have had way too many Dr Peppers this week and I’m trying to cut back. Many people can’t go a day without some chocolate. You don’t have to make all of your characters drug addicts, but most of us have a few addictions, whether we push against them or completely indulge in them can vary wildly.
12. Subconscious – Real people do many things without thinking or voicing them. We fidget, bite our nails, rub our chins, sigh, snarl, and do a myriad other things without meaning to do any of them. I sweat like crazy when I’m nervous. I’m sure you wanted to know that. I bottle up my weirdness when I work and let it go when I get home with crazy singing and randomness. I know people who get angry when they’re hungry. I get withdrawn and quiet.
13. Secrets – We all have stories we never tell, or that we only share with certain people. We keep secrets, our own and for others. Give your characters secrets and play with how those secrets affect them and others.
14. A Look – We define ourselves by the way we look as human beings. I have a beard and I like to wear fedoras. We gravitate toward a certain hair style, hair color, clothing, makeup style, and even type of glasses. Make your character distinct in some way, even if they follow trends. You can even make the way they try to appear and the way they actually appear collide.
15. Purpose – Proactive, dynamic characters are the kinds of characters that will drive your readers through to the last page. They must have motivations to move on, to do the things they do, and they have to be active. Passive characters that bob from page to page are forgettable.
16. An Arc – Main characters, usually including your villain, need an arc. They need to grow, change, and develop. We are constantly becoming ourselves each day as we’re exposed to the conflicts and influences of the world. People do change, but we change slowly unless pressure forces us to change more quickly.
17. Surprises – People do things you don’t expect, they don’t expect, especially when under pressure. You must be careful with surprises though. They still need to be anchored to your character, feel genuine, and not be too big of a shift to be believable. But characters do lose control, make mistakes, choose the wrong path, change their mind, and do things they didn’t plan on doing. Just use moderation.
This list could just keep growing, but I have more books to write. What other tools do you use to make your toads feel real as they romp about your imaginary gardens?

Charlie Pulsipher is a were-hamster and lemur enthusiast who lives in Saint George, Utah with his lovely wife and neurotic dog. He writes sci-fi and fantasy or some mix of the two. He plans on surviving the inevitable zombie-pocalypse that will surely start when dust bunnies rise up against their vacuum cleaner masters. He spends his time away from the keyboard hiking and camping in stunning Southern Utah. Don’t be fooled by his shy, humble exterior.

Find him online at www.charliepulsipher.com or his neglected twitter account @charliepulse.

He does bite and his velociraptor impression is quite scary. It’s probably the coolest thing about him.

4 thoughts on “17 Ways to Make Your Characters Real

  1. Welcome, Charlie! This list is most excellent. This fits under “supporting cast,” but I play up my characters' interactions and relationships, especially with family members but also with friends, to make my toads feel real. 🙂


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