It's time once again for another entry in our ever-growing blog chain about writing. The current topic is, "How real are your characters, and how much do you know about them?" Please go here and here to read the previous and next entries in the chain. I also have links to all of the blogs in the sidebar.
Before I start discussing characters, I'd like to discuss briefly the relationship between fiction and reality, as this topic has inspired me to mull about that. We read fiction for various reasons; sometimes we want a mirror of our own reality, and sometimes we want to escape from it. (I've lived in Midwestern suburbs for most of my life, and although the Midwest is my home, there are times when it's so mundane I need to escape from it mentally. That's one of several reasons why I love science fiction and fantasy.) But when we read or watch movies or TV, we want to believe in them, at least as long as we're actively engaged in them. So perhaps it's more important to find out what makes readers believe in the reality of characters. Since writers generally start off as readers, and since both writer and reader are needed to bring a story to life, I'll talk first about the writing side of the equation before going into the readers' perspective.
As Heather pointed out in her own entry on this topic, writers almost always feel their characters are real to them; otherwise, the writers wouldn't feel inspired to write about the particular characters in the first place. I haven't tried to obtain Social Security numbers for my characters and claim them as dependents on my taxes, but they still feel like real people to me, perhaps citizens of the universe next door. My characters have strengths and weaknesses, like anyone you meet on the street. They have their own dreams and interests, even ones not relevant to the story. I also have a fairly good idea of what happens to them before and after the beginning of the book.
As for how much I know about my characters, it changes over time. Although I do get to know my characters in my head before I start writing, I generally don't write out a full-blown character sketch for them before my first draft. Even if I do try to create a mini-biography of the main character, it's often incomplete on paper, as I hold more details in my head. Other things come to me as I write. For instance, I have two incomplete trilogies, one fantasy and one science fiction. In both series, after I finished the first book, a secondary character who already had a love interest "told" me that he or she was bisexual and in love with the main character as well. Talk about a plot twist! I worked that into my fantasy series, but I'm still not sure how I want to handle it with the science fiction series.
Although at times my characters will rebel as described above, at other times, I'll come up with a plot twist that feels right for them. I can change the details from draft to draft, but the end result stays the same. In Across Two Universes, Paul's mother is murdered at the beginning of the story, though I've changed how and where it happens. But I could not start afresh and save her; that would be a different book. I do other cruel things to him in the sequel, enough for me to shed real tears over him. Paul may not be a real person, but he inspires real emotions in me.
This brings me to my final point: no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. (Edit: this line isn't from me; it's from Robert Frost. I should have Googled first before quoting.) How do we convince our readers that our characters are real? I think part of it has to do with the telling detail, using all of the senses to bring the world to life. Small details about the characters, like quirks or favorite things, can also make them seem real. But for me, what gets me involved with my characters is their emotional lives, and those need to be portrayed realistically as well. If you can convince your readers that yes, someone would really react a certain way in a given situation, then they too will start thinking of your characters as real.