Writing Real People

richardiiiI started off the day today reading this very interesting interview with Tobias Capwell, the man who escorted Richard III’s coffin. Besides being a really good read on a subject that I love (medieval history), he said this:

Real people are more complicated. What is the reality of his situation? Terrible stress, terrible physical danger, danger to one’s loved ones might push a basically honorable person to the edge where he does awful things. That’s what history is about for me: good people doing some pretty awful things, and terrible people sometimes doing pretty decent things.

I love that quote… I write my novels thinking things just like what he said there… that people are complicated, and that honorable men do horrible things. And horrible men do honorable things. And then there’s all that gray area in between. People are, in general, confused and stumbling through life. Even the people who think they “get it”… they really only get themselves. They don’t have their finger on the pulse of anyone else’s reality.

One of my favorite fantasy authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, wrote a book a while back called Tigana that exemplifies this idea. In the story, the reader follows the lives of several characters. Each has some personal motivation that is driving them, and for each character, that motivation is pure. It’s good. It’s right! Even though one character’s goal is to get close to the king so she can kill him… she has it completely justified in her mind. The brilliance in Tigana is that Kay also convinces the reader that she is right in her motive. But he takes it one step further… he also convinces the reader that the king was right in his motive to cause the other character’s animosity toward him. As a reader, you are left going… “but he… but she… they are both right!”

And that’s how life is. Truly. People act based on their own observations, emotions and drivers. When writing characters, I try to keep this idea firmly in mind. Characters should be complicated. They should be multi-dimensional. There shouldn’t be a clear-cut answer. Every once in a while, the hero should be a schmuck, and the villain should rescue the kitten from the tree. It’s my goal, as the writer, to pleasantly surprise the reader.

What’s your take on characterization? How do you make your characters more realistic?

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