Why characters in your novel have to be real, mostly

One of the fastest ways to put people off your novel is to have a character who’s – well, a ‘character’, like a cartoon.

Wright_Typewriter2Ernest Hemingway made the point decades ago: novels need ‘real’ people, not ‘characters’.

In short, the onus is on authors to develop characters who are compelling – who present as real, multi-dimensional, shades-of-grey people. Not cyphers with collections of ‘characteristics’ cribbed from Jungian ‘character archetypes’ or other arbitrary lists.

As always the challenge is ‘how’. But the answer is all around us: we’re surrounded by real people. They do real things. And that can be worked into your novel – carefully. By this I don’t mean writing a plot where the kid that used to give you atomic wedgies at high school, got you punished for stuff you hadn’t done, and so forth, ends up in your story being slowly lowered feet-first into an industrial meat grinder, while everybody jeers and laughs at him.

What I am talking about is the technique where the real people you see around you lend their nature to a character you’re developing. All authors do it. Sometimes to excess – there have been occasional lawsuits when someone took exception to obvious personal inclusion in a story.

That’s the issue. Sure, you need to use real people, but don’t really use real people, if you get what I mean. They should be inspiration, not a direct description. There are a whole lot of reasons why, including the risk of offending the person being character-cloned. But the main one is that it isn’t creative. Authors don’t learn from it – what authors learn from is being able to mull over what these people are like, to understand it, and to then integrate that understanding into something new. This is what ‘writing from experience’ means.

To me that’s the way ahead for character creation – and a way of making it real.

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If you want to learn more about writing and some cool techniques for turning those perfect ideas in your head into the written word, check out my short book How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

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5 thoughts on “Why characters in your novel have to be real, mostly

  1. Caricatures and cartoons. I’ve read too many. And the horror of them isn’t rewarding in a Dean Koontz kind of way. Observing real people should be a clue that human beings are multi-faceted creatures that don’t perform well as cardboard replicants. For whatever reason, I’ve never been inclined to base characters on a single person. Where’s the fun in writing about someone who already exists? My characters are melded traits with touches of real people, including myself. There’s at least an eye dropper’s worth of me in all my characters, good and bad. It bonds us. Even if I access pictures to help define characters I never use celebrities. They come with too much baggage: vivid lives and old roles. I want to explore fresh and new, not wallow in used.

  2. Oho such a fun topic! Completely agree!! I think we may ask be inspired and do this subconsciously- I won’t even say from time to time cos everything we write is coming from some experience somewhere- like you said it’s writing from experience. And I do agree with you about it not being creative to just come someone and put them in a book.
    I have to say I always find out a little peculiar to have people requesting to be put in stories or books- I have always clarified with them that if I ever draw inspiration from anyone it is always life’s jerks- why would I want to punish my friends by putting them in a story- besides I’d like to think my friends wouldn’t in these works, given 90% of my characters are horrible people 😉

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