Writers of fiction, and sometimes certain types of poetry, use a strong magnifying lens when creating characters for their stories. We hear of the importance of writing believable characters and the need to zero in on specific traits of each character to make them relate as fully formed people. They must have voices, behaviors and personas that feel legitimate to the reader.
Characters must not only be interesting (because they basically are the story), they must also stay true to their character throughout the length of a story, no matter the number of books they appear in. In a sense, it is a trust issue. The expectation is that readers can trust characters to behave consistently throughout the breadth of the story. Often, the only character permitted to deviate from their perceived role is the villain. Villains are, after all, full of trickery and evil.
However, if our story heros wobble too much on the rails of trustworthiness, the author will pay a price for disappointing the reader’s expectation of character consistency. Potentially, a bad review, for one.
Although the demand for realistic and trustworthy characters seems fair, it can be considered a fantastical one, a paradox of reality, in a sense, when we consider a couple of facts.
1) Real people are not exceptionally interesting, most of the time – at least on the surface.
2) Real people do not always behave in consistent, trustworthy ways.
3) Our perceptions of real people are skewed depending on situations, preordained judgements, and the way others choose to present themselves to us.
It is amazing we can function in real life at all when we so often cannot be certain of the authenticity of the people around us. Which is the point of this article.
It’s all about survival.
In real life, it is our natural instinct, stemming from ancient humans, to make quick judgements based initially on visual appearances, then behavioral perceptions, and lastly, personal interactions. Our ability to sniff out potential threats happens fairly fast, a natural aptitude built into our DNA, crucial to self-preservation. However, people have evolved over the past few thousand years, becoming more skilled in not only changing our physical appearance, but also excelling in the deceptive art of disguising behaviors and intentions. We don’t always know what sort of person we are dealing with.
Our instincts attempt to protect us from other people in three ways:
1) Visual: We look for clues of a person’s character, social status and relatability. In other words the more comfortable we are with the visual aspects of another, the more appealing they are, the more we are drawn to them, and the more likely we are to trust them. We look for for familiarity, and similarities to either ourselves or those we already trust. A process of visual typecasting, if you will.
2) Behavorial: Whether we realize it or not, the moment we meet someone, we are on guard, observing and absorbing every detail of their behavioral system. We subconsciously begin ticking through a mental list of likes and dislikes regarding this new person. We get “the vibe”, registering whether or not they mesh with our own personality, behaviors and even values. In just a matter of minutes we can walk away, certain we like or dislike someone. Though this first impression is not always correct.
3) Personal Interactions: It is we begin to interact with someone on a regular basis that we forge a more realistic perspective of who they are, or at least who they are in relation to us. Love or hate them, it is our perspective, personality and the chemistry we develop (or underdevelop) with this person over a period of time that dictates how we feel about them.
Through personal interactions we can develop a solid understanding about people at work, our in-laws, etc., creating friends and foes. We can begin to feel confident that we know these people well enough to believe what we are experiencing is the reality of who they actually are. That is until they do a character dump, a sudden personality three-sixty, or several layers of their onion peel away, revealing a side of themselves we never expected. This can be either disappointing, or a wonderful revelation.
No matter how the disparity in a person’s represented persona is revealed, it can turn our personal perception of someone around or upside down, either ruining the relationship, hurting us, or potentially steering us in a more positive direction than before. Losing or gaining trust for the individual, after believing we already knew who they are over a month, or several years, of personal interactions, can really shake us up!
So, how does any of this relate to the characters writers create? And why does it matter? Submersion.
Readers read for escape, plain and simple. We want adventure, romance, action and suspense. When we decide to purchase a book, it’s like a handshake with the author. Our purchase is akin to an unwritten agreement, a contract of sorts. We have read the title, the blurb, the extended summary and possibly a slew of reviews. The book’s details have intrigued us and we are committing to the contract by putting our money down.
Trust is now on the line.
Of course, no reader can expect the content of any book will meet every literary desire on a mental tick-off list. Most are reasonable people and will give the writer a free pass here or there if the plot lagged a little, or had a hole or two. But there is one thing most readers cannot get past…
Characters are the vehicles by which the reader escapes the real world and its real people. Our desire is to dive into a fantasy experience inside the head of a realistic hero whom we trust.
This is the paradox part I mentioned earlier.
Obviously, fictional characters are not real, but they must feel real. We must be able to size them up and pass judgements on them in a matter of paragraghs. The writer’s job is intense in these early pages. They must prove their hero passes the readers three point perspicacity test: Visual, Behavioral, and Interaction. Readers must feel they can trust the hero for their story survival.
When the reader meets the hero for the first time, the desire is to form a connection, fairly quick. It is a partnership of trust that the reader understands who this character is, is able to connect or relate to them, and agrees to trust them on a journey into new world full of adventure.
As we zip along on the story rollercoaster we will learn some more secrets and anomalies about their character. These may be hard facts about our hero’s past, or a surprise secondary reason they are doing what they are doing. They can even go through a mental rough patch that has readers yelling “What the hell is wrong with you?”
This is all fine and good, because it won’t change our belief in the realism of the character or break the code of trust we have vested with them. Ultimately we trust the character to pull head out of butt, at some point, before the end of the book.
What the main character can never do is betray the reader. A character acting as the hero, and also our trusted story liaison, must never perform a surprise character dump or three-sixty their personality. As common as this may be in our real lives, it is not the reality of character we expect to experience in books.
In summary: Readers enjoy realistic characters whom they can trust for their story survival. Writers only have so many pages to bring together a handful of traits and mold a believable, relatable hero readers can connect with and trust for the duration of the story. Real people are slippery fish. Just when you think you know them they can flip on you unexpectedly – but never your story hero!
Trust and survival are key in life, as well as fiction.