How to Write Characters That Feel Real

11/22/2016 10:31 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

What are some tips for creating characters that feel very real and full? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Maddie Dawson, Bestselling author and creative writing teacher, on Quora:

Oh, I do love writing characters. One of the best moments in life is when a new character comes bouncing into my head, with a story to unpack. Usually they show up with one facet of a story I might like to tell, and I spend a lot of time thinking and listening to some inner part of myself that is working to create a real person--or what feels like a real person.

I don't know everything at first. The information comes in slowly, sort of like in real life, when you meet someone you think might become a friend. At first you know some superficial details, and then slowly over time, more is revealed. That's the way it is for me in fiction.

In most cases, before I know who the character is, I know the situation I want to write about. In my latest book, The Survivor's Guide to Family Happiness, I knew that I wanted to write about a woman who was put up for adoption when she was just a baby. And I knew that I wanted her to feel the pain of that separation, to long to know her history, to want more than anything to see her birth mother and understand why she was given away.

Once I knew that, Nina Popkin showed up in my head, and I slowly, over time, started to learn more things about her.

What makes a character feel real? I have a few pieces of advice on how to create a character who seems like flesh and blood:

  1. Give a full description. Know in your head just what your character looks like and sounds like, what job she has, what yearnings he can't express, how many siblings she has, what he does all day when he's not working, what object she carries in her purse, how he feels about his parents. You may not need all this information in the book, but you need to know it for yourself.
  2. Give your character some quirks. You don't want any character in your book to seem like a cardboard cutout. Maybe your character has a thing for singing along to oldies on the radio, or maybe she twists her hair or bites her lip or has a way of using language that's unique. Maybe he's a guy who knits or can't resist telling everybody the price of gasoline at stations he passes on his trip to work.
  3. Revel in contradictions. We are all a bundle of contradictions really, aren't we? In order to feel three-dimensional, your characters should have that, too. Somebody who takes crazy chances in love might also be somebody who is conservative when it comes to jobs and friendships. Somebody who seems lazy at work could be a perfectionist about cleanliness and stay up late scrubbing the baseboards and taking the stove apart.
  4. I like to do interviews with my characters. I often sit down and type at the top of the page: WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE IN THIS BOOK? And then type whatever comes to me. Often I learn something about the character's motivation that I hadn't thought of before. It always adds a dimension I didn't know was there.
  5. One way you know that your character has taken on the characteristics of a real person is when you are trying to write them into a situation in which they refuses to participate. A dedicated mother probably won't walk away from her family for good simply because you want her to, no matter how much you need that to happen for the plot. If that needs to happen, you may have to go looking for another character to be in your book instead. I once wrote a book, The Stuff That Never Happened, in which the whole time I was writing, I figured the main character was going to leave her husband at the end of the book and reunite with a lover from years ago--but you know what? She wouldn't do it. In the end, I was as surprised as anyone that the couple stayed together to slog it out. But it was the right ending for these characters I'd created--or who had shown up to be in the book. I have to say, I kind of like it when they take charge.

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