The newest character who’s taken up residence inside your mind is a vibrant being with compelling desires and deep emotions. But the instant you pluck him out and flatten him onto a page, he becomes limper than wet cardboard.
You love this character. So how do you pump blood into his paper veins?
You shove goals, ghosts, and character arcs down his throat. You fill his pockets with quirks and memories until he can’t walk without something spilling out. But despite the tears, sweat, and ink you shed, his words sound nothing like the brilliantly poignant and humorous dialogue in your favorite stories.
Although brainstorming tactics and questionnaires are all part of the process, lively character interactions come from the spark that ignites every story: authenticity.
1. Give the Characters Flaws
Your characters need to mirror humanity, and if you’ve studied real people for any length of time, you know they all share one trait: flaws. A husband works hard to provide for his family but looks up game scores while pretending to listen to his wife. A pastor welcomes every guest to his church, but he hides from a particularly talkative one in Walmart because he doesn’t have the will to muster a smile. An accountant waters her supervisor’s office plants when he goes into quarantine but refuses to speak up for him when coworkers slander his management style.
Flaws are unattractive, but we trust a person who appears to have no vices as much as we trust a person who has no virtues. The same applies to stories. If a bunch of noble, brave, endearing characters face off dark-hearted fiends, you’ll narrow your eyes, wondering what moral the author is pushing. Good characters with flaws and bad characters with virtues are an uncomfortable mix, but their composition is relatable to readers.
In Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, Kalmar and Janner have attitude problems. Janner is the Throne Warden to his brother Kalmar, which means he must protect him. Watching out for his little brother is aggravating enough, but Kalmar also holds the title of king and seems determined to behave as if he doesn’t.
Each brother’s selfishness is off-putting, but the flaw makes them resonate with readers. Once that bond is established, the story’s meaning sneaks in, and they leave with a new picture of sacrifice and redemption ingrained in their minds.
To identify your characters’ flaws, consider how their mistakes drive the plot. When Kalmar attempts to escape his duties as king, he becomes a wolf who can’t control his wild instincts, which eventually endangers his mother. His cowardice and selfishness throws him into that mess, as well as affects the rest of the story.
If you’re not sure which flaws cause characters to clash, examining how and where confrontations naturally occur can put you on the right track. When Janner and Kalmar move to the Green Hollows, they have a chance to enroll in a guild. Kalmar isn’t safe joining one alone, so Janner has to forfeit bookbindery to stay close to him. Because the situation challenges Janner’s central flaw (selfishness), it flares up, and he rails against the unfairness of the arrangement.
2. Add Conflict
When broken characters communicate and work and live together, their rough edges will inevitably rub against each other. The wife realizes her husband isn’t paying attention to what she’s saying and activates passive-aggressive mode. The church visitor notices that the pastor avoided him at the store and begins spreading gossip about him. When the supervisor learns that the accountant didn’t defend him, he excludes her from the next promotion.
Retaliation is never pretty, but it reveals a second truth that’s threaded through humanity: hurt people wound others.
In Kara Swanson’s Dust, Claire and Peter demonstrate this phenomenon. The two characters are falling for each other, but their struggles sabotage a moment that might have led to happily-ever-after. An abusive father shaped Peter into a self-absorbed individual who’s terrified of responsibility, and after a rough childhood in foster care and losing her brother, Claire doubts her worth. When the couple kisses for the first time, Claire makes an innocent comment that triggers Peter’s fear of commitment. He closes up, and Claire’s insecurities surge. A scene that started heartwarmingly ends with Claire snapping at Peter and running off, only to get captured by Captain Hook.
Cheap romance relies on contrived misunderstandings, but the disagreements that Peter and Claire have are as raw as the flaws behind them. For the scenes in your story to feel real, you need to generate the same amount of friction. Don’t tie up everything with a cheerful bow. If Claire had stopped to think about Peter’s past, she might have pitied him. But people frequently fail to set aside their own problems to empathize with someone else’s, especially when they’ve just been stabbed in the back. Characters who easily forgive others drain the tension and portray humanity inaccurately.
While every scene needs some sort of dissonance, not all of the characters involved need obvious flaws. In Dust, Mr. Darling has grown up, entered a relationship, and accepted responsibility, three changes Peter needs to undergo before his arc can end well. Though Mr. Darling doesn’t display any glaring flaws, the advice he offers opposes Peter’s values. Claire and Tiger Lily have a similar dynamic. Although the girls get along, Tiger Lily’s confidence has a positive influence on Claire. Neither mentor ignores the protagonists’ flaws, which pushes them toward transformation.
3. Introduce Consequences
When a character mistreats others, the results should always come back to bite him. Poetic justice presents him with an opportunity to grow out of his immaturity, just as the hard knocks we experience after messing up in real life teach us lessons.
Avatar: The Last Airbender hammers consequences into the story’s antihero. Banished Prince Zuko is obsessed with regaining his honor, but his Uncle Iroh spends two seasons patiently trying to convince him that he doesn’t need to achieve greatness to be loved. When Zuko unites with the dark side instead, landing his uncle in prison, their friendship shatters.
Although Uncle Iroh has a forgiving nature, Zuko’s betrayal causes him anguish. He doesn’t shrug off the incident, so Zuko has to deal with his own foolishness alone. Because the disaster helps him discover who he truly wants to be, his antihero arc is one of the most memorable in children’s cinema.
Without repercussions, a character’s authenticity doesn’t matter because it has no impact. Be wary of using other characters to rescue your problem children from the mire. If the supporting cast never negatively reacts to the protagonist’s poor decisions, he’ll never learn that he’s wrong. If Zuko hadn’t lost Iroh, he wouldn’t have realized how much he cared about his uncle. Your characters need to have similar revelations to facilitate authentic exchanges.
When your characters argue, make sure it redefines their relationship and perspectives. Their evolution can be quieter than Iroh and Zuko’s. In many stories, squabbles bring characters closer together. But every controversy must provide your characters with new insights about themselves, their friends, or their journeys. Perhaps your protagonist leaves a conversation even more determined to hide potentially harmful but important information from her friend. Perhaps that friend then has the sense that she can’t trust her bestie. However the scene goes, a character should never exit it empty handed.
Strikingly and Scarily Authentic
When characters act and speak honestly, they engage readers’ emotions and embody powerful themes. But the ability to create characters like Peter, Claire, Zuko, and Iroh is fragile and easily smothered by fear.
Because authentic characters are ugly, you may be afraid that readers won’t like them. If you listen to this worry, you’ll temper characters’ distasteful habits to make them more appealing. They’ll then cease to live according to their beliefs and weaken (if not destroy) your story’s message.
While safe characters might not offend others, they don’t reflect humanity’s true condition. People are sinful, and writing sinful characters is dangerous. But master artists tell stories by taking risks, and so must we. When we show the transformation of flawed creatures, we’re repairing broken vessels and painting them with beautiful images of redemption.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.