The problem is, it’s hard to have an actual story without having any people. People are agents of change, shakers and movers, and, because of all this, they are interesting. (‘People’, of course, doesn’t have to mean ‘humans’. Go crazy.) As said by Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, “Stories are about people who are uncomfortable.” Meaning: No people, no story.
Without characters, things can still happen. You can have a completely people-free event (like, I dunno, an asteroid smacking a mountain), but there won’t be any story to give it context, meaning, and relevance. Changes may occur, but without them happening to characters we can identify with, they’re not any changes we care about. (It’s worth noting that, the moment I thought about this scenario, I started thinking about all the creatures that it would impact- plants, dinosaurs, monstrously huge insects, the world’s first mammals- and even anthropomorphized, imagining the agony of the shattered crust of the earth. I intuitively sought out a character to apply significance to the event. The thought that astroidal pummeling happens on, say, Jupiter all the time didn’t even occur to me until much later, probably in large part because I know of nothing there that would mind getting walloped by space rocks. No character? No caring.)
But how to make characters? How do we create people who are more memorable than the ink and paper they’re printed on? To do that, we look to real people and some of the features that grant them realistic depth and interest.
Have Pasts. People don’t just blip into existence the moment you meet them. Nor should your characters. Know about their childhoods, their past relationships, their crime records. Even if most of this never makes it directly onto the page, it will still impact who those characters are and what decisions they make.
Have Wants. Everybody has wants, whether that’s being desperate for a better brownie recipe, unquestionable rule of the entire subcontinent, or just ten unbroken minutes to eat your Cup Noodles without your boss hounding you. People often have contradicting wants that lead to internal or external struggles.
Have Problems. We’re all flawed and we live in a flawed world. This creates problems for us. Give your characters a mix of large and small problems. Maybe Joe has an undeniable attraction to colored paper clips and his boss is tired of having to buy more paperclips all the time. And his dog likes his self-righteous neighbors more than him. And he just accidentally received a coded message about a nuke that’s going to land on Manhattan tomorrow and the cops won’t believe him. Poor Joe.
Have Emotions. Even those who work really had to keep them hidden or suppressed have emotions. Heck, even Spock has outbursts of them every now and then. Even characters that seem worlds away from us (the royal princess, the admiral of the intergalactic freight ship, the drug-addicted dock worker) are relate-able through their emotions. And while you can probably get away with an emotionless antagonist (smallpox, Skynet, an asteroid [hey! It’s back!]), readers expect to be able to connect emotionally to the protagonist.
Act. Real people act on their wants and needs. How they act tends to color our opinion on whether they are a good guy or a bad guy (or the comic relief). We struggle against what we don’t like, even against what seems inevitable, and this should be especially true of your characters as well. Real people can spend their whole lives flying under the radar. But a character who does that will be… well, pretty boring.
Surprise. Even people you know your whole life surprise you. (My kids surprise me all the time. Often at hall corners. And with sharpies.) People have secrets and people harbor contradictions. (For example, I like to <whoops! secret!> and I am a dairy-intolerant fromager.) Characters should surprise readers in how they address their problems and achieve their wants, while still maintaining a believable adherence to their core values and personality.
Change. Characters- and people- change. (A chief break-up insult is to tell someone that they never change, even if this isn’t strictly true.) The changes your characters make will mark their progress through the story. In fact, the story is all about the changes they undergo, changes that come about on their journey toward achieving their goals.
Now, you’ll note that there is quite a bit of room for overlap in these different arenas of ‘realness’. This, too, is another facet of reality. Blurriness. Overlap. Confusion. Your written characters should be every bit as complex- as messy and contradictory and terrified- as the people sitting next to you on the bus, buying pastrami on rye in front of you at lunch, checking out books at the library. That’s how to write a realistic character.
Fill your pages with life and detail, and you will create the kind of characters that readers think about long after they close the final page of your book. Happy writing!