Why characters’ lives don’t imitate real life

FacesMannequinsAfter a rather crazy week it occurred to me just how artificial our characters’ lives are. Yes, we all know it’s fiction, and the characters are made-up in the first place, but every single thing that happens to a character—good and bad—must move the plot forward in some way. Imagine how boring a novel would be if the characters had the same daily crises we do: flat tires, broken zippers, cat barf on the bedspread, dirty diapers, etc. Now if the cat barf leads the housekeeper to whip the bedspread off the homeowner’s bed, revealing a bloodstain on the husband’s side, and the wife had said the husband was traveling, THAT would be interesting (and relevant).

Even the kinds of unusual events we sometimes encounter don’t work in a novel unless they matter to the plot. For example, this past week, thanks to the central Texas floods, we had some three-foot carp wash over our lake’s dam. My husband and I tromped through knee high water, weeds, and fire ants to rescue the fish that were still alive.Eric Carrying Fish

This event was quite memorable to me, but in general our characters just don’t get to have that kind of experience unless it matters to the plot. (Come to think of it, I can imagine a scene in a future Mariana Morgan, PI novel where she is wading through knee deep water looking for fish and happens to stumble on a dead body.) In real life, these occurrences are interesting on their own merit, certainly to us, and often to friends and family. But in a novel? They are pointless, page-skipping, yawn-fest fodder.

Avoiding wasted scenes is especially important in these “modern times” of txt spk and 144 character Tweets. Readers no longer have the patience, or even the motivation, to read long tomes. Author Anne R. Allen said it best in her blog from last year: How to Write for the 21st Century Reader: 6 Tips to Modernize Your Prose. Among her excellent advice was this gem: “Realism is overrated. The most entertaining books and films aren’t realistic at all. In fact, the most memorable stories go way over the top.”

So how does an author create a sense of individuality, personality, and pseudo-realism in characters, while still shifting them from one plot-driven scene to the next? Different authors have different approaches. Many (including yours truly) give characters personality quirks and funky habits that make them seem more real, even if most every quirk and habit still ends up being important to the novel (or as a legitimate red herring… is that an oxymoron?).

License PlatesIn my novel, The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket, Private Investigator Marianna Morgan rides a sports motorcycle. It’s certainly unusual for a young woman, but it still isn’t gratuitous – I use it as a plot-turning point. She also memorizes license plates by inventing phrases from their letters and numbers. She calls her car the Pickle Toy (license plate PKL 2OY), which lets me establish a subtle Freudian side to her personality. She notes that her potential new love interest’s license plate is H57 SDT (Heinz 57 Super Duper Trooper). Her habit of doing this makes her memorable and gives me a chance to use it in a variety of ways.

Mariana’s client, Stephen Davidson, absentmindedly rubs the bald spot on his head when he sees or encounters something upsetting, but even this turns out to be a clue in the story. If I’d given him this habit, and the reader never saw a reason for it, they might have felt cheated, or subconsciously found something lacking in the story. Although character quirks aren’t equivalent to the day-to-day stumbles we mere mortals encounter, they do provide a multi-dimensionality for the people who populate a novel. And they help make up for lives that move from one plot-driven encounter or experience to another. They help make the characters seem more real.

I’m sure we’ve all read novels where the characters and their lives are so one-dimensional they run together and it becomes difficult, for example, to remember if Rose was the secretary or the clerk in the hat shop. Or we don’t remember one or more characters at all. Creating memorable characters is one of the biggest challenges for any writer, no matter the genre. Think about your favorite novel. I’ll bet when you do, it isn’t the plot you liked best, but one or two characters that really came alive for you. Now think about how those characters lived inside the story. Not very realistic, were they? You know what? That’s okay.

A novel written based on real life, or real time, would bore the most intrepid and dedicated reader. We read to escape the mundane, to enter a world that feels more alive than our own, where more happens and people are larger than life. We imagine their idiosyncrasies, and the constant whirlwind of their daily lives, would be a great way to live. But perhaps only for a couple hundred pages.

Share here – what is your favorite book and why? What is the most memorable character you recall from a book? What made them memorable for you?


  1. Phil McBride:

    Larry McMurtry knows how to go over the top better with his characters better than most. Probably why he’s so good.


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