Fictiophilia is a condition that causes somebody to fall in love with a fictional character. It sounds like a joke. Until you think about all those teenagers that pined after Edward Cullen. Or the thirsty women that cued up for hours to get the new fifty shades. But what makes a character come to life?
Fictional characters feel real when the reader can emphasize with them. Research shows that this happens when the character has similar or recognizable traits and experiences. When the resemblance increases, so will the feelings of intimacy and closeness. This makes the character feel more realistic.
This doesn’t mean that you are a wizard-like Harry, but it could be that you feel like the odd one out. Or that you cannot connect with your family members, for example. Read on to learn more about the importance of realistic characters, and how you can create them.
Why is it important that fictional characters feel real?
Scientists found that identifying with fictional characters helps to reduce stress, anxiety, and fear of rejection. It improves overall well-being by offering a soothing alternative to real-life connections. The emotional involvement also temporarily diminishes the sense of self and surroundings, offering a safe get-away.
I don’t know about you, but that is precisely what I love about a good book. That it can transport me to a different world. That only works when you connect with the characters, good or bad.
A character that feels realistic, allows you to compare yourself and measure up. You do this subconsciously, to find out what your place in the fictional world would be. Your brain figures out what your role would be when you have a lot in common with one of the characters.
This all happens without the threat of rejection. You are in your little bubble, your safe space. This way you can even have some of your unmet needs satisfied. Your mind doesn’t see the difference between what’s real and what is fantasy. So if you feel like you are bonding with characters, your brain will register this as such.
When I write, I befriend my characters. I must see them for who they are, not just one side. That way I can make them relatable, complex, and come to life.
What is a complex character?
Complex characters have several sides to their personality and a background story that formed them into the person that the reader meets. Just like real people, they have traits that are unique to their personalities, have emotions and feelings, and experience mental growth. This creates the feeling of a well-rounded personality.
Even though we all want our characters to be unique, we should use what we know when we create them. Maybe you are familiar with the twelve character archetypes? Sure you are; the lover, the hero, the damsel in distress. Just to name a few.
The archetypes are based on a theory of psychologist Carl Jung, who felt that the traits of these archetypes reside in everybody’s subconscious. One of them will be dominant, making up most of your personality. It can be the root cause of motivation, the way you look at life, and how you deal with problems.
A complex character doesn’t necessarily fit one archetype. If you are writing a romantic story, your protagonist might fit the label of the lover, but they won’t become complex until other layers shine through as well. Maybe they are dominantly a lover, but underneath also an outlaw. Maybe they are an outlaw because they also long to be the hero.
Don’t take the labels too literally. A hero doesn’t mean that they want to go out and save the day, or wear a red cape and soar through the sky. It just means that they want to be strong and on top of their game. The ‘go big or go home’ kinda people.
Have a good look at the archetypes and see how they fit your personality. I am positive that you can see at least a little sliver of every one of them in yourself. Just as I am certain that one will make you go, ‘hey that’s me’. Do that for your fictional friends as well, and you end up with complex characters.
How can you make your characters come to life?
There is more than just one way to make your characters come to life, but I hope I got the message across that they should at least be relatable. But how do you do that? What can add those extra layers to their personality, to make them stand out?
Fictional characters feel real when they trigger empathy or sympathy with the reader. This happens when they remind them of people in their surroundings, or even of their own behavior. The character’s traits evoke memories, making them relatable and recognizable. This allows the reader to view them as their peer.
Simply put, model the character after people you know. I love this. I observe the people around me in their daily lives to find out how they respond to certain situations. People who stand out tend to be a bit more extreme in their expressions, which makes them easy subjects, to begin with.
When I wrote my first book, I based the characters on my family. My aunt, her husband, and my cousin all made an appearance. The latter played a very prominent role. I needed to connect with the situation. By doing this, I created high stakes for my main character. Giving her feelings that I shared. This didn’t just make her stand out, but it also made it easier to write it.
So, to quickly sum it up for you: give your character background, more sides to their personality, drive and motivation, relatable traits, strengths and flaws, and so forth. Just look at the people around you. How do they behave? What makes you like them or despise them? Use that for your stories.
Now that you know why a well-written character is so important, it’s time to make them come to life. If you want to know more about how to create one, you can read this short article I wrote.
We writers are blessed. We can touch people and impact their lives. Let’s honor that. You can do it!