When you need to create a person out of thin air, what do you do? This is a question mad scientists and writers deal with on a regular basis. You could, of course, follow the modern scientific method and gather body parts from the graveyard. And I don’t intend to be critical if that’s your way.
But if you don’t have a shovel and a wheelbarrow, and you’re writing fiction, you could use the literary method. You still get to steal things, and you might even want to lie about it on occasion, such as when someone says, “Was that woman who wouldn’t shut up at the party based on me?” Ohhhh no, it wasn’t based on you. You’re nothing like that.
One of the truths of writing fiction is that even creating a poorly-done, unrealistic character can require a lot of effort. If your character does more than stand on the corner with an umbrella, or collect train tickets, the character will have to move around (“the man walked along quickly, with his arms held close by his side”) and wear some kind of clothing (“she was wearing a red knit dress that came to her ankles, sitting there in the laundromat”). In other words, even for things that aren’t really all that interesting, there are many possible choices.
Doing far more than I’ve implied above can still produce flat characters. Needless to say, but damnit I’m saying it anyway, it can be very frustrating to work so hard and then realize—or worse, have someone tell us—that we didn’t achieve it. Although every character on paper will be missing many things a real person would have, if we work hard enough, in the right way, the readers will perhaps fill in or ignore what is missing, and the character starts to seem like a real person.
What is enough? What is in the right way? In this succinct, well-written blog I can’t begin to cover all that might be done, but I want to consider one idea of character development: does a well-developed character always need a flaw? It’s a tricky question, because negative qualities are so…you know…negative. We don’t like them. If a character has enough flaws, the character becomes unpleasant. When we write fiction, we ask readers to voluntarily give us their time, and in exchange we promise to provide an experience worth having. Is spending many hours in the company of a repellent character an experience worth having? Not for me it’s not.
Yet there is an exception to any rule against creating an obnoxious character. If it’s done for humor or satire, then the humor alleviates the displeasure, and it can become a happy experience. Maybe the most well-known example is Shakespeare’s character Falstaff. I would add Ignatius J. Reilly (Confederacy of Dunces) or Ostap Bender (The Twelve Chairs, a wonderful Russian satirical novel). The idea of nasty characters for humor has carried over into pop culture and filmed versions, such as Homer Simpson, all the characters on Seinfeld, or many movies attempting humor.
But those are all exaggerations, and humor is the purpose, rather than convincing the reader to believe in the character as a real person. Part of the trick fiction writers face is that all real people have flaws, sometimes small things like eating food off the knife, and sometimes large flaws like being cheap with money. If we create a character who seems to have no weaknesses or faults, the reader actually may not notice, because we can’t possibly see everything about a person. Still, if we do add flaws and faults to our characters, this addition can help make our characters seem more real. There may be the danger I mentioned above of causing a reader to back away from the character, and it is a real danger. In addition to skill, perhaps the writer has to have more bravery to darken a character who they want the readers to like, but with our own friends, we surely know things about all of them that we consider negative, yet we like them anyway.
As with all other aspects of creating literary characters, since our characters imitate the amazing diversity of human beings, we have a range of choices for making them flawed. We could simply do something physical. Maybe the character is ugly, or has a deformity, such as a limp or bad vision. The physical flaw could also be situational, like a boy on a baseball team who always drops the ball after he catches it. Physical flaws can be useful to round a character out on occasion, but the most serious portrayals of human beings involve psychology. A few general categories for faults or weaknesses include fear, prejudice, intolerance, or bad habits.
Creating examples from that list, I can have (1) a lawyer who is afraid of flying and has become so adverse to travel in general that his wife is frustrated they can’t go anywhere, (2) a male violin player who believes that women are physically incapable of playing a violin as well as a man, (3) a woman running an ice cream shop who doesn’t like the Chinese in her neighborhood and who gives them slightly smaller portions when they come in, or (4) a young woman working for a publishing company who will go for days without washing her dishes, until there are roaches in the kitchen.
For the same people, let’s add this: (1) the lawyer makes a point of being home for dinner with his wife every night, and he brings her fresh flowers once a week, (2) the violin player volunteers one evening a week at a homeless shelter, (3) the woman who runs the ice cream shop is coldly ignored by her husband and she also spends time helping her elderly mother, (4) the young woman is writing a play about her father, who was a hero in Vietnam.
If we take either paragraph alone, good or bad, the characters may be somewhat interesting, but not nearly so much as when we add both together.
The only flaw I can find in all this discussion of depicting human nature is that I cannot seem to detect any faults in myself. But I will keep looking. I know people who will surely be willing to help me. In the meantime, I wonder what characters have you encountered in literature that made you feel you were reading about a real person?