Today, while pumping gas at a small-town gas station, I overheard a pair of friends reuniting in that genuine and fleeting way that neighbors do when they are in the midst of an errand. And while I listened (in my defense, they were speaking loudly so it couldn’t be considered eavesdropping), I thought about a scene I had recently written that included two similar men, passing through a similar errand, and I began to reconsider if I had done justice to their characters. Were they as believable as the two men standing next to me? Was their dialog as natural, their reactions as real?
Which lead to me wondering: What makes a character real? Is it details, physical descriptions, gestures or language or even posture? Or is it something more subtle?
I think of all the characters I’ve read over the years who’ve seemed so genuine to me (a few of many): Tom Wingo from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, Faye Travers from Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum, Agnis Hamm from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Alex from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s The Shining, Nora Silk from Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven, among so many others.
Now keep in mind this list isn’t about likeable characters (even though I may like or root for most of them), rather it’s about whether they are believable in their written skin, so much so that they become more than characters, rather seamlessly genuine people. We believe the things that annoy them, truly annoy them. The things that break their hearts, truly break their hearts. The words that come out of their mouths are consistent with how we’ve come to know them. They make choices that, even when unfortunate, follow the truth of their character.
As a writer, it is the goal that every character, however brief in the story, be a genuine part of the fabric of the novel, enhancing believability and not derailing it. We writers hope we can tell (because the reader always can) the difference between a real character and a clichéd one.
So tell me: Which characters have seemed the most real to you all, and why?