When aspiring writers ask me how to make characters feel more solid and believable, there’s one piece of advice I often give.
Don’t forget the ‘boring’ stuff.
I don’t mean that a story should be boring. Heavens, no. I’m just saying that we writers have so much fun writing the weird and wonderful parts of our tales, that sometimes we lost track of our characters’ ordinary, everyday needs.
The story may be about love, death, revenge, jealousy, exploration, mysteries or power, but actual people also have to think about food, sleep, money, shelter, warmth and washing.
Hungry people don’t just feel ‘hunger pangs’ or faintness, they lose concentration or get cranky.
Tired people squabble, forget things, have slower reactions than usual and in extreme cases hallucinate. (A friend of mine was once so very tired that she hallucinated a giant cow appearing in front of her. Worse still, she was driving at the time.)
People who are forced to sleep rough may end up with coughs or sniffles. Travellers who have trekked a week without being able to wash properly will find their clothes really uncomfortable, and may smell bad to people at the next town.
Have you designed a beautiful costume for your character? Be honest with yourself – if they find themselves fighting, leaping or running for their life, will the clothes get in their way? Maybe the outfit will trip them up or get caught on something at a dangerous moment. Maybe it will get damaged or muddy. Maybe they’ll have to ditch parts of it just so that they can sprint properly.
Do they wear armour? That will need regular, lengthy polishing, just to stop it rusting up.
What’s more, in a realistic world most people will need to work or find money so that they can afford to eat. The dark secret of Dread Swordsman X may not be some long-forgotten duel, it may be the fact that he can only pay the bills by doing the washing up for the local tavern.
Another thing. Injured people tend to stay injured for a while. It’s very easy to lost track of which characters been punched, knocked out or stabbed in the last chapter, and have them miraculously heal because you’ve forgotten that they should be bruised, limping, groggy or taking care not to reopen wounds.
I’m not saying that there should be loving, detailed descriptions of every time characters brush their teeth or use the loo. But characters who never get hungry, tired, cold or grubby start to seem flat after a while. Worse, they seem smug.
Readers want heroes to triumph over their hardships… but they want those hardships to be hard.