Creating Living People: The Art of Relatable Characters

Guest post by author Preston Norton

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” Now, that’s all well and good, but not all of us can be Hemingway, winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize and such. Let’s be honest, we’re not that smart. So, how exactly does one create living people? What Hemingway means, of course, is that they need to feel like living people. They need to evoke something inside of us, something that speaks of the human experience. This is important for almost all characters, even the inhuman ones. Why?

Because if we can’t relate to these characters, why should we care?

The first step in crafting a good, relatable character is through dialogue. This is a novel, after all. You can describe your character all you want (I don’t recommend this), with their mousy brown hair and their gray-green-cerulean-blue-sadness-colored eyes, or their abs like slabs and jawlines that could slice cheese. Your dialogue is your character. Your dialogue is what the reader sees. Ultimately, it’s the reader’s imagination that projects the visual, but your dialogue is the energy source. It’s the fuel that keeps things running and creates a sense of progression or growth.

Writing good dialogue, however, is easier said than done. I could give you plenty of personal tips and suggestions, but the best advice I can give is this: consume. Be in a constant state of devouring stories in all their forms: books, comics, movies, television…even story-driven video games! There is a wealth of great dialogue everywhere. My advice is to seek out stories, and characters, and—in this case—dialogue that is better than your own. Consume stories that make you jealous and think, I wish I was smart enough to write something like this.” What this is, in fact, is fuel. You’re expanding your creative reservoir and giving your brain the inspiration it subconsciously craves. The more you consume stories that are better than your own, the more capable storyteller you become. Be ambitious in your story consumption. If you want to be a writer more like Hemingway, I have a helpful suggestion: read Hemingway! As a side note, Hemingway was a huge proponent of dialogue and its single-handed ability to carry the weight of a story on its own. Hemingway’s iconic short story, “Hills Like White Elements,” was almost purely dialogue.

Good dialogue makes a good, relatable character on the outside. But the most critical (and subtle) aspect of masterful storytelling is to make a character good and relatable on the inside. What I’m speaking of is giving your character an emotional core. This is relatively easier in the genre that I write: realistic-contemporary young adult, with only the most minimal elements of speculative fiction. Usually the speculative elements exist only as a means of exploring the more human aspects of my characters. I truly believe that no matter what genre you write, be it hard sci-fi, high fantasy, vampire erotica, the most important element in any fiction is the emotional core of your characters. It’s not enough for your character to be struggling on the outside. They need to be struggling on the inside. Ask yourself: what loss has your character suffered? What are they trying to gain? Do they feel good enough? Strong enough? Do they feel broken and are simply trying to fix themselves? Have they lost faith in something that was once important to them, and now they don’t know what to believe in anymore? Are they searching for new meaning in a world they don’t understand? These are the questions that vex humankind. If you want your characters to be relatable (and you do), then explore what’s going on beneath their exterior struggles.

A lot of people would say that The Lord of the Rings is about elves and dwarves and wizards and hobbits trying to destroy an evil ring. I would argue that it’s about losing dear friends, and separation, and being brave enough to make decisions with what little time is given us. It’s about fighting an unwinnable fight against insurmountable odds. It’s about not being strong enough and having your best friend carry you the rest of the way.

It’s about hope.

Every good story—every good, relatable character—has an emotional core built on hope. 

Happy writing!

Preston Norton is: bisexual, slightly genderqueer, married. His partner, Erin, is trying to put him on a diet, and he’s revolting (both contexts apply). He has taught seventh grade and ninth grade English, mentored drug addicts, and mowed lawns (in no particular order). He is obsessed with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino. He is the author of several novels, including NEANDERTHAL OPENS THE DOOR TO THE UNIVERSE (Disney Hyperion) and the forthcoming WHERE I END AND YOU BEGIN (Disney Hyperion, June 2019). 

Writers’ Clearinghouse empowers authors and agents by providing low-cost, at-a-glance evaluations of entire manuscripts, with emphasis in twenty specific areas (including relatable characters) that tell you exactly where your manuscript stands, its strengths and weaknesses, and what you can do to improve it.

Comments are closed.