Most of us were readers before we were ever writers. We learned to appreciate the lure of a good story long before we tried crafting one. We’ve all stayed up past bedtime, planning to stop reading as soon as we finish the next chapter. But somehow one chapter multiplies into several more. We’re reluctant to leave the story world that’s captivated us, and if we don’t find out what happens to the characters we’ve come to care about, we’ll be unable to sleep.
As novelists, we want to engage readers to the same degree and for the words on the page to fade until only the fictional world exists. When a story becomes this vivid, it affects readers physically—pounding heart, increased respiratory rate, muscle tension. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “transportation.” (For more on this concept, check out Jeff Gerke’s book The Irresistible Novel: How to Craft an Extraordinary Story that Engages Readers from Start to Finish.)
To achieve transportation, we must forge an emotional connection between our characters and readers. Humans, by nature, yearn to relate to others, to understand their thoughts and feelings. One of the most effective ways to cultivate empathy in fiction is by making characters as human as possible. The more realistic the character, the higher the chance that readers will bond with him.
Real people are full of details, and each one represents a moment in time. A choice made. An experience shared. All those little facts add up to a complex human being, and we need to mimic that complexity in fiction. We can do that by paying attention to the details—a character’s favorite color, the music he or she listens to, the car model he drives. Every quirk is an opportunity to flesh out the characters and reveal who they are.
Discover the Reasons Behind the Details
Many writers fill out a character questionnaire before drafting a story. Others, like me, are commitment phobic and prefer a more organic approach, starting with a character sketch rather than a finished portrait. As I write and get closer to my characters, the details tend to emerge. I think both methods work, so don’t feel pressured to switch. Use whichever one suits you—either before or during the writing process.
The key to developing complex, realistic characters is to dig for the reasons behind the facts you’ve assigned to them. Why does your character prefer Dove chocolate to Hershey’s? Why is she a cat person, not a dog person? Why does he drive a Jeep as yellow as Pikachu?
Let’s say your character cross-stitches as a hobby. Evaluate why you gave her that hobby. Maybe she’s a detail-oriented person, and cross-stitching is where her skills shine. Maybe she’s an artist at heart, and cross-stitching fuels her creativity. Or maybe she feels like her life is nothing but chaos and each tiny stitch allows her to gain control over something.
The protagonist in my YA series likes screamo music—the kind with heavy guitars and harsh vocals. Kate has grown up in a home where emotional manipulation is prevalent, so being open and vulnerable isn’t an option for her. Screamo music acts as an outlet for the intense feelings she hides. The reason behind her favorite genre is never disclosed, but it’s implied. Kate turns to music when she’s frustrated or trying to drown out an unpleasant conversation. Instead of expressing her feelings, she grabs her iPod and plugs in the earbuds.
Another character in my series is conservative with color. Whether it’s his clothing, car, or the furniture in his house, Hassan doesn’t stray far from a black, white, and gray palette. Part of it is due to his serious and reserved demeanor—but he’s also a human stealth device. He has the ability to disappear and blend into his surroundings. His color choices reflect not only his personality but the shades of the Seattle area where he lives.
Again, the stimulus for my character’s habit is never explicit. The same might hold true for your characters, and that’s okay. As long as you know, that’s enough. If you shape your characters through their decisions and experiences, that will transfer to the page.
Use the Details to Create Realistic Characters
The reason behind your character’s idiosyncrasies can also influence his reactions to situations. Maybe he jogs not just to stay in shape but as an escape mechanism. When he’s stressed, he’ll put on a pair of running shoes. If he can, he’ll exercise outside rather than on a treadmill that traps him inside the house. You won’t have to spell out why he’s doing it. Readers will understand intuitively.
You can hint at your character’s rationale through his actions, as well as his thoughts, feelings, and dialogue. Another character could even make a statement or pose a question that points toward the motivation, but I suggest stopping short of an outright explanation unless it’s absolutely necessary. Sometimes what’s unsaid carries the most power, so provide just enough information for readers’ intuition to kick in. Think of it as planting a seedling of possibility in their minds instead of a flower in bloom. Give it room to grow.
Explaining the details is inadvisable, but you definitely don’t want to force them. They should fit into the story naturally. In real life, we get to know people little by little, and that process should be gradual for readers too. No info dumps.
Mention the color of a character’s SUV in a scene involving his car. Describe a character’s tattoos and piercings the first time your protagonist sees her, because that’s when he’ll most likely notice. Some details might take longer to discover—a faded scar on the back of someone’s hand, or the collection of Dragonball manga a guy keeps in his room. Consider how details are observed in the course of normal human interaction and start there.
Every detail tells its own story, so delving into the reason behind each one is worthwhile. Those details can then serve as a guide to create complex, realistic characters readers can empathize with. Once you’ve formed that connection, the stage is set for you to transport them into the fictional world you’ve built.
Where will your story take them?
Kim Vandel is an award-winning author, a science nerd, and a recovering overachiever. She lives in the Seattle area, where she’s learned to substitute caffeine for Vitamin D. When not writing, she spends her time reading (or binge-watching TV shows with her husband) while she waits for the next superhero movie to release.