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Ringing true: creating realistic characters

734826_79943595-croppedKnow what?

Fiction readers do not want role models.

They want to read about themselves.

They might find characters they like and hope to be, but they certainly don’t need a tidy moral at the end, an overbearing message, or a broad theme drilled into their heads over and over again.

They need to identify with your characters — the protagonist, the villain, and even the quiet mother-in-law who appears for two pages.

As they say ad nauseum in theater, “What’s my motivation?”

No one is the antagonist in his own movie. Everyone you’ve ever met believes himself or herself to be in the right; to be striving, to be well-meaning, to be trying. That goes for good guys and bad guys alike. Mother Teresa had her own insecurities. Presidents wear underwear. Even Hitler,┬áin his inexcusably sick and deluded mindset, thought he was doing the world a big favor.

But that’s just it: no matter how bizarre and obviously insane the mindset or the mode of being, the character himself has to believe in what he’s doing. Don’t try to convince us that he’s right; but if you want your fiction to work, you do have to convince us that he believes it.

While it’s important not to switch tones and viewpoints, make sure that every character rings true by permitting him likes, flaws, and idiosyncrasies. Maybe you don’t want us to relate well to the serial killer. That’s fine; but make sure he makes human sense. Give him a favorite brand of cigarettes, a song that he hates, or a strange tic. Tell us what he thinks he’s fixing or making right by choosing the victims he does. Let us know what happened in his childhood to twist him up so. Make us see him.

If you play your story correctly, we’ll decide for ourselves who we want to be like.

We’re each doing that every day anyhow.

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