Keeping our Characters Real

by | Aug 29, 2011 | Book Marketing Basics

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I recently read a medical thriller by Michael Palmer, which I was enjoying a great deal until about the last 20%. The protagonist is a doctor who has Asperger’s syndrome, and from the character I learned something about what life is like from behind the eyes of a high functioning “Aspie.” The plot was intriguing, the main characters likeable, and there was a great twist. So what was my problem with that last bit of action?

Without giving anything away, let’s just say that one of the characters has been tortured, yet immediately jumps up and does heroic deeds without the serious injuries the character sustained interfering at all. Another character comes close to drowning and suffers serious cuts and bruises, but disregards all that and plunges on. Adrenaline could certainly account for some of that energy but, come on…torture?

As a mystery writer, I fully understand that our stories are not real life and that characters in books have to do things that ordinary people in the same situation probably wouldn’t do. But shouldn’t their experiences leave some mark on them? My older son broke his collarbone in a motorcycle accident. Now, he’s big, tough, and a bodybuilder, but eighteen months later he still experiences significant pain in his shoulder. If he were a fictional character he would be immediately jumping from one building to another like Spiderman, disregarding injury or pain.

Seeing people die in horrible ways, maybe even having to kill or seriously injure someone-has got to impact our characters in life-changing ways. In real life, if someone fails to deal with such experiences directly, they would likely suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In fiction, that could make for all sorts of interesting sub-plots.

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We want our readers to identify with our characters, and over time, whether it’s through the arc of one book or an entire series, come to care about them as if they were old friends. An important part of making a character real is to give them human frailties, both physical and emotional, which means reacting to the challenging-okay, awful-things that happen to them in the plot. So, if your protagonist has just faced down a killer and shot him or her, I want to know how he feels about it. Is he exhilarated, or does he experience pangs of guilt? Or is she just plain exhausted by what she’s gone through? If your protagonist was kidnapped and threatened, brutalized, perhaps, when she escapes from the situation, does she begin to feel as if she must now always look over her shoulder? Can she ever feel safe again? Does she have nightmares about what happened to her?

I addressed this issue in my third mystery, Dead Write, where my protagonist, forensic handwriting expert Claudia Rose, was still suffering emotionally from traumatic experiences she’d undergone in Written in Blood, the previous book. Having lost a friend to a brutal killer, and after witnessing violent death, etc., Claudia is experiencing depression. She tries to hide how she’s feeling by withdrawing into a shell, but the distance this creates causes uneasy ripples in her relationship with her lover, Joel Jovanic. The trauma also brings up painful old memories of a childhood situation that continues to haunt her.


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Our protagonists are expected to have a character arc and to have learned something by the end of the book. By using what happened in one book as a stepping stone to Claudia’s emotional growth in another, I was able to give her character more humanity-humans suffer and hopefully, we grow from it. Our characters should, too.

Guest post by Sheila Lowe. Like her character Claudia Rose in the award-winning Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series, Sheila Lowe is a real-life handwriting expert who testifies in handwriting-related court cases. She’s a frequent guest in the media and was invited by Lifetime Movie Network to provide information and analyses of criminals on their website as a tie-in for Jeffery Deaver’s The Devil’s Teardrop movie. Sheila holds a Master of Science degree in psychology and is the author of the internationally acclaimed The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and the Handwriting Analyzer software. Email:

Twitter: @sheila_lowe


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  1. Sally Carpenter

    I agree with your observation how some fictional characters are never injured. I recall an episode of “The Wild Wild West” where James West is in an intense 10-minute fistfight and ends up with nothing more than a tiny cut above his eye–he’s not even sweating! And giving characters an “arc” definately makes them real. Thanks for your post.
    Sally Carpenter
    “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper”
    Oak Tree Press

    • Paula

      Thanks for stopping by Sally! Sheila offered some great advice… and I’m laughing at the episode of “The Wild Wild West” you mention. 🙂

  2. Anon. Poster

    Good post! I prefer more realistic characters who have to dig deep for brave responses to adversity. But for light reading, I also love Dick Francis whose protagonists manage to fight off maniacs while hobbling on crutches. I finally realized that this is an example of male fantasy lit that many people read for the vicarious heroism. Women also have their indomitable two-dimensional fantasy characters who face down emotional trauma without more than a moment’s reflection. While I find realistic and complex characters much more satisfying, I recognize that many, many readers just want an escape from their own reality, and the shallower, bigger-than-life heroes will always be strong sellers.


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