After writing a six-page paper for my Shakespeare class about Twelfth Night’s Malvolio I realized how important it is to have realistic characters in a story; especially in fiction.
In order to write that six-page paper, I had to analyze every piece of evidence to assume Malvolio's place in the play, his emotional position, and his relationship with every other character surrounding him. I don't think that without this assignment I would've realized how important it is to not just develop realistic main characters, but also supporting ones Why? Because credible characters make the story more appealing to the reader. Whenever you as a reader feel a connection with a character, you know it’s because the writer was successful while developing it. Realistic characters have realistic interactions, therefore, your story feels more real.
But I’m not just writing this post to talk about why all this is important, I also want to provide a list of characteristic a realistic character must have...at least according to me.
Before focusing on any other aspects, I believe the most important characteristic is the physical appearance. Hair color, skin tone, eye color, height, etc. This is the first aspect we notice in strangers even if we just see them pass by. While writing, it is important to not just give the list of all these characteristics, but to give the reader an interesting way of finding them out.
In my opinion, the best novels reveal the physical appearance of the characters only when it will be able to flow with the narrative, there shouldn’t be a rush on revealing all the details in the first chapter, or the first paragraph where the character is introduced.
Each character needs to have a background, where they come from, their education, family, and all those things related to their life before they were first written about. The background will reveal partly why they act a certain way, or do certain things.
You don't necessarily have to reveal all the background information on your characters, but it should feel like they come from somewhere, and that they have had real experiences before.
Giving your character a personality is what allows people to decide if they like the character or not. They might not always be the jerks or be pictures as perfect. Real people are flawed, so show that.What they like, dislike, their pet peeves, etc.
This should also interact with the background; people are a certain way because of what they’ve been through, whether is a tragedy or the struggle of the path to success, they have forged a personality.
There is no better way to show a character's personality than having them react to the challenges in the story, and interacting with other characters.
The way your character speaks will say a lot about them. If they have an accent, can’t pronounce a certain word, or if there are words or phrases they say all the time. Write things down the way they would say them, or have other characters comment on their accent and assume they come from a certain place. This could be a subtle way to show your character's background.
Speech can also show a lot about your character's personality, or emotional situation. Do they sound sad, optimistic, or happy? Do they curse all the time, or avoid cursing at all? Give them a voice.
If characters are to become real, they must have feelings. Whether they speak about their feelings or not, like real people, have your characters show how they feel. Are they in love, angry, jealous? There are many actions that could serve as indicators for your readers. As I mentioned, their speech is one of them, but actions serve just the same. Explore how they would react to happiness or tragedy; give them pride, empathy, or apathy. Have them punch walls, clean obsessively, or consume themselves in other physical activities,
Place in the Story
Once you have a character with all the characteristics above, give them a place in your story. Whether they are main characters or supporting characters, all these characteristics should be able to allow them to move around your story and interact with other characters and the setting. Become familiar with your characters so you know how they would react in any situation. Push them, and they will surprise you.
I hope this is useful for you. Analyzing the characters in the books you read will serve as a great way to learn how to develop great characters. There should be a certain type of connection involved with the characters you read about and the characters you develop, if you struggle, observe and do your research.
It will be hard at the beginning, but if it helps you, write down their profiles while you get to know them by heart.
You can download a character profile sheet here.