Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Four Ways to Take Your Characters from Cardboard to Real

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

We're always looking for ways to make our characters more real. In fact, the manuscripts that cross my desk often get red-lined because the characters are not "strong enough". What constitutes "real"? It comes down to one word—congruity. 

Character congruity means that we writers must understand our characters well enough that we don't make them do something they aren't supposed to. Or visa-versa. I know this sounds a little funny—they aren't REAL!! So how can they do something they shouldn't? But it's really pretty easy. Characters act just like humans.

Humans have reasons for what they do. So do characters.

Humans base their reasons on both internal and external experiences. So do characters.

Humans react to conflict or disasters or problems in very specific ways. So do characters.

So, if a human is told that a much-beloved dog has been killed in a sudden accident, we can make certain assumptions about how that human will react, based on how well we know him or her. Again, each human (and character) is different, but we all will react in some way, whether it's hysteria, great sadness, or a shrug. 

How you create a character will directly determine what reaction he or she has. In so many words, they are congruent with their personalities.

If the human or character doesn't show emotion easily, a shrug may be all that the viewer sees. If he or she is more dramatic, there may be tears. The actual reaction is not as important as the fact that there IS a reaction. And that the reaction is congruent with the way the character has been created.

The opposite of congruent is when that dramatic character DOESN'T react to a tragedy. Or when the stoic fellow breaks down and sobs. 

But one of the beauties of congruency is when the character doesn't react as we expect. That type of situation must happen with purpose. IF your character has been shown to be stoic and instead falls apart, there should be a really good, and obvious, reason. Usually, a character who has been reacting in a certain way all along realizes that the "old way" no longer suits. The situation may be the same but the character has learned a lesson and changes. We also call it a character arc.

So how do we make our characters more real? We study real people and learn from them. 

Here are four ways to make your characters more real:
  1. Start with a notebook or journal. Write down ideas about your characters, trying to see through their eyes
  2. Watch the people around you. Be observant. Find a good place to sit and take notes. What reactions do they have? Of course, you don't want to get too close—I think that's known as stalking—but see if you can tell what they're thinking and reacting to.
  3. Talk to your friends/family/writing peers. Give them examples of situations and ask them how they would feel in certain situations. 
  4. Watch movies, read books. Immerse yourself in how writers—both good and bad—write about their characters' emotions. Are they congruent? Why or why not?
For me, this is the fun part of writing—we get to really interact with people, even if they're not someone we know. Regardless, it gives us a change to delve deeper into our own reactions, maybe discovering something we didn't know.

Do you people watch? What interesting things have you seen?

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—‚she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Sally - you never disappoint. You always mention one or more important crafting considerations that I needed to read. I like interviewing family, friends, & colleagues about ways they would react then adding that to my notes or journal. Thanks. Jay in SC

  2. Thanks, Jay! I'm so glad you're already talking to "real" people. Good for you!
    I appreciate the comment.

  3. Sally, I've been a people watcher for a long time. My kids used to be embarrassed because (according to them) I would fix my gaze on someone in public and try to figure out what they were thinking. Sometimes those darling children accused their mother of staring. Well, it worked anyway.