Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Have you ever noticed how fictional characters seem more real, more solid—more there—than real people?
They aren’t just larger than life—they’re more substantial.
The issues characters deal with are more critical for their happiness and maybe their lives. They’re often critical to the lives of those they love.
For all their illusory qualities, fictional characters seem uncommonly real and solid. At least the good ones do. The ones that move us. The ones we remember. The ones who reach out from the fictional world, into our world, and change us.
I think one reason they’re so real is their honesty. Their openness.
While we often don’t see the true depths of the people in our real lives, we see a great deal of the heart, mind, soul, and dreams of fictional characters.
As we read, we learn their motivations—what moves them. We learn the dark and momentous moments of their life histories. We learn their most treasured goals.
We know what makes them cry, what gets their goat, what makes them laugh and jeer and cheer.
We know what makes them give in and give up. And we see what trait or traits push them to make the extra effort, often a life-changing effort.
Characters are honest and open with readers in ways that real people aren’t, in ways real human beings can’t afford to be. Not with other human beings.
We hide our deepest selves out of fear or shame or embarrassment. We don’t reveal our whole selves, not to everyone. Maybe not to many.
Maybe not to anyone.
Revealing our true selves is too potentially costly.
As an example, I purposely don’t share my political views with certain acquaintances—being honest in certain venues isn’t worth the hassle. While I know that hashing out differences in opinion can often benefit both parties, sometimes there’s no benefit to sharing the truth as you see it. Not if it costs a friendship or a job. Having it out over some issues isn’t worth the dustup you’d create.
But a character would share. A character would push back and speak out. A character would reveal the opinions and needs demanding an outlet from a turbulent soul.
Through spoken words and actions, a character would reveal the issues churning in the deep places.
And when that character or others are hurt by the honesty that bursts free—when the conflict and tension levels rise—the story is better for it. Stronger. More dramatic. More engaging.
With more at stake, the story is more compelling. It’s at this point, when the reader truly understands what’s actually at stake for characters, that story resonates within the reader. It’s these revelations of truth and honesty that make characters lifelike.
My reminder today is that you allow characters to be honest about their beliefs—political, religious, social, or whatever the field or context. Allow characters to be honest about their dreams, fears, and shortcomings as well.
When characters expose themselves to those who could hurt them, those who could turn their honesty into weapons to wield against them, then you have potent fiction, stories that draw readers deep.
And when those other characters do use revelations against the character who has bared his soul, well, any outcome is possible. The potential for pain and drama increases exponentially.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that characters be honest in all their ways—some characters need to be dishonest in their dealings with others for a story to work. What I’m suggesting is that you reveal character weaknesses and beliefs, sometimes to other characters but always to readers. That you make characters clear. That you make sure the curtain is pulled back enough to expose the characters.
No matter what they reveal to other characters, major characters need to be transparent to readers. They need depths and layers, that’s true. But readers should see into the depths and through the layers.
Readers should understand why a character behaves as he does—and what it costs him to behave that way. A character whose motives are hidden will feel incomplete to the reader. She’ll feel unreal, even though hidden motives are common in real people.
To know characters, readers must see why they do what they do.
Motivations and a character’s feelings should be revealed to readers. Characters should be laid bare by the revelations you choose to make; you should leave characters with no place to hide from the reader.
As you write your characters, remember that although they aren’t breathing humans, they need to be seen in their fullness—naked and clear—so that the imaginary becomes real in at least this one way, a way that even real-world people seldom accomplish.
You have to be bold enough to reveal in your characters what you might never reveal of yourself. Your characters aren’t you—while your life might be very much worse were your secrets revealed, their stories are infinitely better when readers learn their secrets.
Make characters reveal themselves honestly to readers. Give readers the full story, every (relevant) element of your major characters open and exposed.