How to Write Realistic Characters by Candice Yamnitz

One of the reasons I love having guest bloggers is that they can give you a new perspective on topics. I’m excited to have the guest blog today, “How to Write Realistic Characters” by Candice Yamnitz. Candice is new to “JPC Allen Writes”. I met her on Instagram and have been following her journey toward publication. Take it away, Candice!

Think of a character you adore. What makes that character feel real to you? There are many layers to this question in any story. I’m going to review the ones I find most important.

I’m a YA fantasy author whose debut novel, Unbetrothed, comes out February 2022 with Illuminate YA. I wrote it back in 2018. Rounding out my characters took about ten drafts. I’m hoping I can give you some insight, so you don’t have to go through so many drafts.

Give Your Hero a Lie to Believe

Every hero believes a lie. This isn’t just a matter of having an imperfection. Your character needs something ingrained into their thinking. It should be related to their goal or in contrast to their goal. 

For instance, in Unbetrothed, Princess Beatriz wants a betrothal to her best friend. In order to do that, she needs a magical gifting.  She believes that a person’s value is found in their magical gifting. If she didn’t believe this lie, why strive so hard to get a gifting? Yes, wanting to marry prince charming is a good enough desire to send a person on a crazy quest. But with the lie, my character has more motivation and a thought process I can use in all her interactions.

Give Your Character Quirks

In real life, I love love love quirky people. It’s so much fun to find out that a friend you’ve known for years has a strange way of eating a candy bar. Then there’s the friend who can’t stand certain textures or the one who has a squeaky laugh. 

Give your characters fun little details. Consider giving your character a tick, a strange habit, and something they always do when they’re angry, nervous and happy. Plan these all out for your main set of characters and make the quirks distinct. Also, keep track of which character has which quirk by keeping a character journal. Please tell me I’m not the only one who forgets a character’s eye color twenty chapters into the novel.

Yes, you’re not alone. I also discovered that I’d given way too many characters brown eyes and had to go back and throw in some variety.

Build a Backstory

Backstory doesn’t belong in chapter 1 and needs to be sprinkled into the story. Even so, I recommend writing short stories about scenes in your characters lives before the story takes place. When I first wrote Unbetrothed, I just wrote the main story. The novel didn’t get more depths until I had written several prequel short stories.

I understood my characters more deeply. I knew and felt their wounds. I understood why certain characters behaved strangely. I could hear the hidden messages they sent in their dialogue. This doesn’t happen unless you get into your characters’ experience. 

Consider writing:

  • Your main character’s deepest wound
  • The start to the story if you were writing from the  antagonist’s perspective
  • The protagonist’s mentor’s story (ie. I wrote about Princess Beatriz’s mom.)
  • The same story from another person’s perspective
  • Your main character’s most treasured memory

A Note to the Adult YA Writer

When writing YA, you have to put yourself in the teen mindset if you’re not there. Go back to grappling with your identity and insecurities without adult experience. Emotions tend to be rawer and more pronounced.

I spent my college years, young adult years, and beyond mentoring in youth group. This haa given me insight in talking, emotional, social, and dating patterns in this age group. I love this age group because it’s where God reached me. Please consider spending time with teens if it’s not fresh in your mind. This will help you get the right voice, and you’ll know your audience.

Writing Sidenote: I am not a plotter. I write chapter 1, a page long synopsis, and then dig into writing my manuscripts. If you’re a planner, you might want to do all the backstory work beforehand. That’s not me. I tend to write draft 1 first. Everyone has their own process. I hope this helps you write more realistic YA characters. If you’d like clean teen book recommendations, book giveaways, and to learn about my writing journey, sign up for my newsletter here. I have some really exciting news coming up over the next few months. I can’t wait to share the cover, the exact release date, and the swag for my book.

Thanks for much for the great tips, Candice!

If you’d like to read an interview with another YA author, click here.

*****

Blurb for Unbetrothed, coming February 2022. Candice drew these portraits of her main character Beatriz. Aren’t they gorgeous!!!!

Around Agatha Sea, princesses are poised, magically gifted and betrothed.

So, when seventeen-year-old Princess Beatriz still fails to secure a betrothal, her parents hold a ball. Forming an alliance could mean the difference between peace and war, but Beatriz doesn’t just want any suitor. She’s in love with her best friend, Prince Lux. Marrying Prince Lux will always be a silly dream as long as she has no magical gift.

Princess Beatriz will do whatever it takes to obtain a touch of magic, including make a deadly oath to go on a quest to Valle de Los Fantasmas. A valley where no one comes out alive.

If she can manage to succeed, Princess Beatriz could have everything she desires and secure peace for her kingdom. If she fails, she’ll lose not only her greatest dream, but her kingdom, and maybe even her own life.

*****

Candice Pedraza Yamnitz fell in love with The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice in high school and hasn’t stopped reading since then. She taught in a bilingual elementary education classroom for years until she decided to stay-at-home, teaching a crew of imaginative children. So in between reading lessons and converting cardboard boxes into pirate ships, she writes YA novels with a Latin twist. She lives in her native Chicagoland.

You can follow her at Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

When a Character Turns into a Problem Child

When a character turns into a problem child, a writer wants to administer a serious time-out session.

I ran into this frustration while writing my YA mystery. My main character Rae belongs to an extensive, extended family. I decided to give her father an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The dad and his two sisters came to life early and easily. But Younger Brothers turned into a problem child. No matter what approach I took, I couldn’t develop him into an interesting character, one who would contrast with his siblings.

If you are faced with a character who turns into a problem child, try these four trouble-shooting techniques.

Change the Name

Naming characters appropriately is critical for me when developing them. If I give a bubbly character a name that somehow suggests a quiet, sensitive type, the character won’t work for me. But the name wasn’t Younger Brother’s problem.

Change the Face

This is the same as changing the name. Usually when I build a character, I start with a face that I’ve seen somewhere and that signals a certain kind of personality. Younger Brother’s face suggested a reserved, intellectual, but I had another character like that who was working well within the story. I thought maybe I just needed to …

Write a Scene with the Character

This technique had worked with Rae’ grandmother. I knew I had to have a grandmother, but she proved a slippery character, her personality assuming all sorts of traits as I tried to structure her in my mind before I began writing. Finally, I decided to stick her in a scene and see what happened. Pretty soon, Gram’s mellow, warm-hearted personality shone through, making her a nice contrast to her son, Rae’s father, who is a worrier.

But when I wrote a scene with Younger Brother, he became irritating, sounding whiny. So the only thing left to do was …

Combine or Eliminate the Character

I offed him in cold-blood with a a lot of relief. I simply didn’t need him. If I hadn’t already had a character similar to him, I might have taken his qualities and those of another character to combine them into someone new.

I think the reason I worked so hard to keep him is that I often create groups of four characters. I’m one of four sisters, so I understand how that group dynamic works. What I had failed to realize was that I already had a group of four characters. Oldest Sister married the neighbor boy, whom Rae’s father and sisters grew up with. So he’s like a brother, although an older one to Rae’s father. But I’ve had a ton of fun writing about how the brothers-in-law jab at each other.

Click here for more tips on creating characters.

Have you had a character turn into a problem child? What did you do to fix it?

Manage Minor Characters

Writers also double as casting directors. We ransack our imaginations and experiences for characters, hoping to match them to the perfect plot. We spend a huge amount of time shaping the main and major characters, creating backstories and constructing arcs for them (not arks, unless you’re writing Biblical stories). But minor characters are important too. I’ve found that’s true especially in cozy mysteries. One of the hallmarks of a cozy mystery is the enclosed community in which it takes place. It can be a small town, small business, or some kind of club, any group that consists of a limited amount of people. Adding colorful and fun minor characters spices the mystery and ensures that my setting feels real and isn’t just populated with a detective and suspects. To manage minor characters, I divide them into two categories: supporting and walk-on.

Supporting Characters

I classify characters as supporting ones if their function is to further the plot. In my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I needed to establish some backstory. I had my main character Rae discuss a mysterious fire and the disappearance of a woman with Barb, the director of the library in which Rae works. When I wanted to introduce a new character and didn’t have the word count or time to create a new scene, I made him Barb’s boyfriend. That gave him an excuse to come to the library and run into Rae. In both cases, Barb helped propel the plot.

Walk-On Characters

Walk-on characters don’t have to do more than help the reader feel like the story is operating in a real place. If I only write about Rae and Barb when I have a scene at the library, it gives the impression that they are the only employees, which would be atypical. I mention a few other employees by name as Rae works her shift to make the main branch of the Marlin County Library seem real. Since the library is located in a small town within a rural county, Rae knows most of the people who come into the library by name. I can write something as simple as, “I had to cut short my conversation with my cousin as Mrs. Zollars staggered up to the desk with her usual load of romance novels”, to give my novel the small-town atmosphere it needs.

Click here for a post on how to flesh out minor characters.

Readers, what stories have you read that had great minor characters? Writers, how do you manage minor characters?

Creating Quirks for Characters

So much work goes into creating believable characters that writers sometimes forget to have fun with the process. One way I’ve discovered to keep from letting character development to become a chore is creating quirks for characters, fun traits that make my characters seem more likable or real or relatable. I believe one of the reasons for Sherlock Holmes enduring popularity is his quirkiness. Fans love that he keeps his tobacco in a slipper and his unread letters stabbed to the mantel with a knife. Those eccentricities make him seem more real because we all have habits that we like but can’t explain why we like them. If I can eventually work a quirk into a plot point, so much the better. Below are six ways to create quirks for characters.

Mannerisms

I’ve noticed that many time when I pray, I run one or both hands through my hair. Also, when I am losing patience but trying to hang onto a few manners, I smooth my eyebrows. Characters’ mannerisms can be connected to an activity or emotion and reveal or conceal thoughts and feelings. My main character Rae in A Shadow on the Snow tugs on her earlobe when she’s thinking.

Speech

Giving characters unique phrases helps their dialogue stand out. I use “Shoot” or “Shoot fires”, an exclamation I learned from my dad. I don’t know what “Shoot fires” means, but I still use it. My dad was raised in West Virginia, so I gave that phrase to Rae who grew up all over the South.

Hobbies

I try to choose hobbies that for my characters that I know well, I’m interested in, or can develop an interest in. I don’t like fishing, but my youngest loves it. Through this enthusiasm, I’ve learned a lot about fishing and find it easy to create a character who lives to fish.

Fears and Hates

Dislikes can be as telling as likes. The mystery series Monk was built around the main character’s phobias. Rae’s father is sheriff of their rural Ohio county. He’s an imposing man, 6’6”, and grew up on a farm. I thought it would be funny, and humanizing, if he had a fear of horses. It would be especially humorous since his sister and brother-in-law board horses and give lessons. It also gives his brother-in-law something to joke about.

Food

I may raise a few eyebrows by admitting I am a writer who prefers tea to coffee. I gave that preference to Rae. She will also eat pickles for any meal, including breakfast. Giving your character strong opinions on food is a fun way to add realism. The gourmet eating habits of the detective Nero Wolfe made up a large part of his character and sometimes major plot points.

Personal habits

Getting to know a character’s personal habits makes them seem like friends. Indiana Jones wears a fedora. Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot dresses immaculately and is vain about his magnificent mustache. A character’s deviation from her normal habits can kickstart a plot. Mystery stories often begin when someone notices a character break a habit for no apparent reason.

Be Aware

Creating quirks for characters are fun, but it comes with pitfalls. I shouldn’t overload my character with quirks, or repeats their quirks too often. They will stop being engaging and become irritating. Even more important, I can’t create a character that’s all quirks and no substance. Sherlock Holmes has held the fascination of fans for over a century because a deep personality supports the quirks. I’ve read stories where a character is nothing but a collection of cute habits. So he or she is not really character. No internal structure exist on which to hang all these quirks.

Who are some of your favorite quirky characters? What quirks have you given your characters?

Archie Goodwin, the Watson with an Attitude

Instead of featuring a favorite book or story this month, I’m featuring a favorite character to fit in with this month’s theme about characters. In the past few months, I’ve been rereading the Nero Wolfe mystery series by Rex Stout and marveling at his creation of Archie Goodwin, the Watson with an attitude.

The first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, was published in 1934 and merged two traditions in crime fiction: the genius detective, like Sherlock Holmes, and the tough guy investigator from the hard-boiled school. Nero Wolfe weighs a seventh of a ton and rarely leaves his New York City brownstone for any reason. He raises orchids and eats gourmet meals, financed by the enormous fees he charges as a private detective. His assistant is Archie Goodwin, who does Wolfe’s leg work, going out to interview suspects, cajoling or conning them to come to the brownstone for meetings with Wolfe, and acting as bodyguard. Another of Archie’s chief duties is nag because Wolfe knows he’s lazy, although he won’t admit it, and needs someone to spur him into taking cases.

For most fans of the series, Archie Goodwin is the reason we return to the books. Nero Wolfe is an interesting character, but it’s Archie who makes the series come alive. Instead of being in awe of his employer, who he admits is a genius, Archie is more exasperated than impressed with Wolfe and his eccentricities, such as his rules never to leave his home on business or to vary his daily schedule for anything but the most catastrophic of circumstances. Archie makes remarks about Wolfe that I imagine Watson thought about Holmes but wouldn’t dream of putting in print. Archie also has a way of telling a story that draws in fans, as if I’ve met him at a diner and he’s relating his latest case to me.

Some of my favorites descriptions are below.

“…the swamp-woman — the kind who can move her eyelids slowly three times and you’re stuck in a marsh and might as well give up”.

Too Many Cooks

While waiting for another detective, Saul Panzer, who is Archie’s best friend, to call in during a surveillance of a suspect, Archie gets worried when Saul doesn’t phone on time.

“At 9:15 I was sure that Alice Porter was dead. At 9:20 I was sure that Saul was dead too. When the phone rang at 9:25 I grabbed it and barked at it, “Well?’– which is no way to answer the phone.

“Archie?”

“Yes.”

“Saul. We’ve got a circus up here.”

I was so relieved that all he had was a circus that I grinned at him. “You don’t say. Did you get bit by a lion?”

Plot It Yourself

She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t have to. The tone alone was enough to stop anything and anybody. It was what you’d expect to come out of an old abandoned grave, if you had such expectations.

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death” from Black Orchids

Rex Stout wrote both novels and novellas. I think the novellas are generally better than the novels, but I have favorites in both categories.

  • Over My Dead Body
  • “Black Orchids” from Black Orchids
  • And Be a Villain
  • The Black Mountain
  • “The Next Witness” and “Die Like a Dog” from Three Witnesses
  • “Christmas Party”, “Easter Parade”, and “Fourth of July Picnic” from And Four to Go
  • “Poison a la Carte” from Three at Wolfe’s Door
  • “Kill Now-Pay Later” from Trio for Blunt Instruments
  • The Doorbell Rang
  • The Father Hunt

If you want to read the series, leave the last book A Family Affair for last. It has a plot twist that won’t have nearly as much impact if you read it before you finish the series.

Be Aware

For readers who like clean mysteries, the books do contain swear words, the first few books and the last few more than most of the others. There’s no other graphic content.

Who are some of your favorite detective sidekicks? Or what is your favorite mystery series?

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