How to make characters act like real people

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***Because I know not everyone is going to care about my personal life as a roleplayer/writer, that stuff will be italicized. The actual lesson and how-to will be in normal, un-italicized font and begins about halfway down. I explain the personal background so you can understand how I learned this method and how incredibly fun it can be.***

Many, if not most, writers and roleplayers only like to think about their characters as nothing but words written down or an idea that has no actual life. I, on the other hand, have found it so much more rewarding to make your character under the impression that they have their own thoughts, ideas, and personality and to let those things flourish.

The first time I heard my character talk to me, I thought I was going insane. I honestly wondered if I should check into a clinic and be tested for multiple personalities. It almost sounds paranormal, and for a while, I thought it was. In certain cases, I still believe it might be. In my every day life, my character would “speak” to me, giving his opinion on things that I did. I’d turn on a song, and he’d make a sarcastic comment in my head about my poor taste in music. I won’t lie, it was quite surreal and even scary at times, but after a while, I came to the realization that I was simply treating my characters as real people instead of fictional beings. Some writers and roleplayers may scoff at me and tell me to go get evaluated by a professional, but I have found a staggering amount of writers and roleplayers experience the same thing. It’s not something that everyone ends up experiencing as a roleplayer or writer, but if you do, it’s nice to have a warning about it – something that I was not given.

When I made Cray, my main character, I considered myself an experienced roleplayer (I hadn’t written much at the time, so I couldn’t say I was great at writing, however). I had spent virtually my whole life playing different characters, but I was becoming frustrated. Every time I made a character, I’d end up hating them. I found it more irritating than fun because all the characters I made were really just the same personality in different shells no matter how hard I attempted to make them different. I ended up taking an extended break from roleplaying in general because I thought I just wasn’t good at it.

Eventually, the day came where my husband (whom I met through roleplay), and several of my friends asked me to rejoin the roleplay server I had once been apart of. I was very hesitant because I believed that I, without a doubt, was going to create the same personality once again. I was positive I was going to be become very frustrated with myself once again. I talked to several of my rp buddies about my concerns, and I got some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten in my rp life: listen to your character. They also suggested me to play a male main character to switch it up which I had never done before. I was extremely nervous with the idea, but after much internal debate, I made Cray (aka, the best friend who is in my head).

When I was designing Cray, I did so with a perfect vision of him. He would grow up to be charming, kind, and a bit of a buzz kill. He would follow rules without question, never drink, and never do anything remotely dangerous. He would also be overall happy and loyal to a fault. I picked out a few interests for him including metalworking of all kinds. The server I created him on required characters to start off as 11 years old and gradually grow up (and level up). The more levels acquired, the older the character was. At 11 years old, Cray was exactly what I had envisioned him to be. He was happy, fairly outgoing, and he adored pleasing people. He made friends way too easily, and I even took notes from him on how he did so. He was very fun to play, but he was just another character for me. Through and through, I kept to what my original intention was: even though I made him, even though I was the one behind the screen, I would listen to him. I would “take his queues, never push him into doing something he didn’t want to do, and allow him to grow up to be whoever he wanted.” Whatever that meant. It wasn’t until Cray was about 14 years old (level 6 or so) that I really started questioning why he felt so different to me than other characters I had played before. Overall, he was still the same sweet, joyous, creative young man I had originally created, but there was something…odd about him. There was something that I couldn’t figure out.

Every time I played Cray, I got this strange feeling that he was hiding something. I didn’t understand. How could a character, a non-living thing, be hiding something from me? Hilariously, I was deeply offended. “I MADE you. How dare you hide something from me!” But I was overwhelmingly curious at this point, not just about WHAT he hid, but HOW he hid it from me. I had a firm goal of figuring out what it was. After a good year or so into playing him, I picked up on a very key element of his character: he hated the dark. I realized this when he was at some fun event and all the lights suddenly shut off. I was shocked when I felt a sort of panic in myself. I was uncomfortable, and I realized that was coming directly from him. I roleplayed it out. He was with a friend at the time, and I typed out him grabbing their hand for some source of comfort. His friend wondered what was going on, and so was I. I asked myself: how could a feeling like that come from a character – a non-living thing? That day was my first surreal experience of realizing that a character can feel just as much as I can, and I was absolutely addicted. I had never in my life experienced something as crazy as another “person’s” feelings so truly. I told a few of my rp buddies about it, figuring that I was just making things up, but they just happily replied with: “that means you’re doing it right. ;)” I was ecstatic. Playing a character had never been so much fun before, and it made me want to play more and more. I felt like I was meeting someone new and slowly learning about them over the course of time.

I don’t want to spoil everything about him because Cray is one of my main characters in the series my co-writer and I are in the process of publishing. All I will tell you now is that he is NOT what I originally created him to be. He may still be a very charming, sweet, loyal-to-a-fault blacksmith, but he is so, so, so much more than I ever thought he would be. “He would follow rules without question, never drink, and never do anything remotely dangerous.” Cray and I laugh hysterically at that. To Cray, rules are only to be followed if they use common sense (which he lacks himself sometimes, but he’s gotten better in his age). His favorite drink is rum, which he will never turn down. Once, he made a full chain mail suit and decided it was the BEST idea to test it on himself. That ended with two daggers pierced into his shoulder, inches away from his heart, and it took him months to fully recover. He didn’t even learn his lesson! When he got older, he found it great fun to drop items into a lava pit to see how they would burn (I also realized then that he has a love for fire). Please, do not drop things into lava for the fun of it. He almost died then, too. When I made him, I was under the impression that he was going to be full of light and kindness, but after several years of playing him, I realized just how flawed and human he really is. It’s safe to say that Cray, apart from being a charming, sweet, loyal-to-a-fault blacksmith, he is also an alcohol-loving, rebellious idiot, and I love him for it all.

Since I’ve played him for so long, now, I can even find him in my every day life. I’ll experience little reminders that enjoys the kind of gemstone I’m looking at or he wouldn’t like a particular song I’m listening to. Sometimes, we can even “carry on conversations.” He may tell me to put a certain spice he likes into what I’m cooking. I’ll refuse, and he’ll call me a less-than-nice name. Of course, I’ll snap it back at him and he’ll just grunt and “go away.” Occasionally, it can be something more dramatic. I may be feeling upset, and he will list off reasons why everything will be okay just like a real life friend would. I know. It’s all very strange, and some of you may not even believe me, and that’s fine. It may be something that someone just has to experience for themselves, but I know plenty of people who have.

I’ve learned an incredible amount about myself through playing Cray. I’ve come to realize just how much I’d love to be a blacksmith or metalworker. I’ve learned how to be more outgoing. I’ve even become much more open-minded. Cray has pushed my limits on what I believe is right and wrong, and now I know where my lines are firmly drawn. I’ve also learned a lot FROM him. Cray loves everyone, without question, no matter what their flaws are or how deep they go. He never sweats the small stuff, and he is quick to forgive and forget. He loves blindly. He will do anything and everything for a friend. That was inspiration for me to be more conscious about how I myself treated people and what was REALLY important in life. I’ve grown as a person because of him. All of this, the entire process, is why I want to teach people how to roleplay and write characters with the intention of letting the characters lead. They can end up becoming much more than just characters. You may even dare call them close friends instead.

I will be the first to say that this method is NOT for everyone, and some people may find it incredibly silly or even stupid. I have met wonderful roleplayers and writers who think of their characters as nothing more than words, but for those of you who are interested in figuring out how to listen to your characters, I will be explaining how to do just that. Know that it may not happen right away, if ever. Some people may find it much harder to do than others, and don’t be discouraged if you never end up hearing a character speak to you. ***You do NOT have to use this method to be a good roleplayer or writer.***

Think of this: you are meeting a person for the first time. You are given a general background file of the person. It tells you that they come from a certain country, and they like chocolate ice cream, heavy metal music, and the color green. They come from a family of painters. Now, when you actually meet the person, do you really expect that’s all there is to them? Of course not! They may immediately begin talking about dogs and that one time they went camping. You may realize just how much of a family person they are which was never expressed in their file. The file may say that their favorite color is green, but they may scoff and say that the file is wrong and that their favorite is blue. Even though their family paints, they may enjoy making music instead – heavy metal music in specific. Sure, they love chocolate ice cream, but they only have it every six months. So while their file is correct in certain aspects, it’s vague and incomplete. It may need updating or correction.

People have so many layers to them that a simple background file is never going to tell you all there is to them. They will have certain likes and dislikes. Their interests may change with time. People are not just an assortment of facts. People are fluid beings with deep emotions and changing opinions. To create realistic characters, they need to be the same. Allow your characters to change with time. Realize that a handful of traits does not define who they are as a person. After all, does liking chocolate ice cream tell you all you need to know about a person? No. It’s simply a drop of water in an ocean that makes up a person.

So how do you pull this off? How do you make your characters more than just characters? How do you allow them to change, and how do you realize what part of that “file” is incorrect?

Step 1: Gather your file (aka Create the character)

When you create a character with the intention of “letting them be who they want to be,” there isn’t really any right or wrong way to create them. Pick a name, figure out a quick background for them, pick a few interests, but overall, be bland. Make their “file,” but realize that some parts may be completely irrelevant, incomplete, or incorrect. For now, that doesn’t matter. Get a general idea of the character and prepare yourself to “meet” them.

Step 2: Meet the character (Begin playing/writing)

Realize that the first few times you play/write your character will be messy. You may be pushing to add certain things too much (like making it REALLY apparent that they like chocolate ice cream and heavy metal). This method takes time to get right with every character you create. You WILL be playing them wrong for a while, and that is completely fine. You have to find your comfort with each other before you can really begin to learn.

You can relate this part to that awkward phase when you first meet someone. You may smile too much, only talk about common interests…. You may even straight up lie about something that you know may be cause for judgement. When you first start playing/writing a new character, they are doing just that. They are putting on a show, talking about things that are only in their “file” and straight up “lying” about other things because that’s what you believe is truth. In reality, this stage is you forcing your character to be who YOU think they are, not what they actually are.

If you are a novelist, it may be beneficial to write your character in scenes outside of your book. This phase can be considered the “first draft” of the character. To avoid having to scrap most of your book, I would suggest writing your character in random scenes or do a personal character interview. Give yourself time to learn about them before you drop them into a plot.

This phase can last a few minutes, or it can last years. For me and Cray, it took me at least a year and half to get out of this phase. He was a particularly stubborn character that didn’t like showing his true colors. While I figured out a lot about him in this phase, I didn’t begin to understand his thought processes until much, much later. For other characters besides Cray, it took only a few weeks to really figure their thoughts and morals out. It really depends on the character and how much THEY want to show you. Remember, not everyone you meet is an open book.

Step 3: Go with your gut

There will come a time that your characters wants to do something that you have no interest in. I just experienced this the other night with a fairly new character of mine, Espin. I am still in the learning stage with her, but I have come to realize that she enjoys sparkly girly things, which I don’t particularly care for. She was given the opportunity to go shopping for accessories, and the DM asked us if our characters would be looking for anything in particular. My first thought was “gemstones,” and something purple and fancy She ended up buying a necklace made from beads and later bought a very elegant purple and blue cloak. Purple is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but it wouldn’t have been MY first choice.

When it comes to roleplaying, the first thought is ALWAYS the right one. If your DM gives you the same question of, “what is your character looking for?” and the first thing you think of is “knives,” that’s your answer. Never question it, never hold it back. This is the most important aspect of listening to your character. When you get that gut feeling or an idea randomly pops into your head, that’s them telling you their opinion. Make it known, or at least take a note of that idea for later – which brings me to the next step.

Step 4: Take notes

When you’re first getting to know your character, it’s good to jot down what your gut feelings tell you. This gives you a little bit better understanding to who your character is and what their interests are. You may also realize that they are shy about certain things, and it’s fun to take notes about that to figure out the underlying causes.

If you aren’t planning on playing/writing your character very often, I highly suggest to jot down your gut feelings. This way, when you take a long break from playing them, you can go over your notes quickly and “get back into their head.” If you don’t play/write your character for a while, you may find yourself in the “meeting” stage again, which may end up being frustrating. To avoid that, give your future self enough information for a little refresher. I do this with Espin, and I play her once a week. I may eventually stop taking notes for her, but I feel like in the “learning period,” I need a little refresher every week to get back into her mind.

The more you play your character, the easier it is to realize those gut feelings and put them into action. I stopped taking notes for Cray years ago because I know exactly what “gut feelings” are coming from him. I understand how his mind works now, what his interests are, and why he has certain fears. I have no second thoughts about what actions he would take, so I don’t have to study anymore to figure it out.

I’ll say this right now: you will never be able to keep up with all your notes on a character. It would be like trying to take note of every single aspect of someone’s life. It is impossible.

Step 5: Prepare to be shocked

*Remember that your characters are NOT you. I covered this in my last lesson, and I will stick to it like glue. The decisions your character makes are never, ever a reflection of you as a person. Remember that when you are playing and get a gut feeling that your character wants to do something that doesn’t hold up to your moral standards.*

There will come a time that one of those “gut feelings” leaves you questioning yourself and your character. They make such a drastic decision that you may wonder if you interpreted the feeling wrong. Trust me, you didn’t. Just like learning about an actual person, learning about a character can be just as startling. They may end up having a very strange interest or an opinion that you would never agree on. At first, you may wonder if you, subconsciously, have that same opinion. You may find yourself in a minor moral crisis. *Remember that you and your characters are not the same.* They can have opinions and interests wildly different than you, and you CAN still have fun playing them through it. Every single character I have made holds different values than myself, but I adore every one of my characters like my closest friends. When you make a real-life friend, it’s impossible to think exactly the same away and have the exact same opinions on everything. It may take a little while to be comfortable having those strange or “wrong” gut feelings, but just realize that it is normal to have different opinions than your characters and you are allowed to still have fun playing them.

Step 6: Allow change

Just like in life, our opinions and interests change over time. You may talk to a friend who has a different opinion than you, and they may actually convince you to change your mind about something. Characters are the same way. Another character may convince yours to see a situation in a different light. ALLOW THAT. Once again, you will experience that gut feeling that tells you if your character’s opinions are changing or not. They may stay extremely solid on their opinions, they may not. Listen to that and don’t force your character’s opinions to remain set in stone forever.

On the flip side, you may find yourself changing your own opinions about things. I have absolutely experienced this with Cray. Cray made decisions I was extremely against at the time, but after a while, I realized just how right he had been. I realized that his choice had actually been the correct one, and my opinion was the one that was flawed. You may experience that in the long run, and don’t feel ashamed or silly for changing your views simply because a character showed you better. Allow yourself to change your opinions, too, if you believe it is right to do so.

Step 7: Don’t freak out

You may find yourself listening to music that you hate but your character likes. You may find yourself trying new foods that your character enjoys. You may find yourself being more outgoing like your character. But if you’re like me, and SEVERAL other people I know, you may eventually find yourself in a very odd and almost scary position. You may actually talk to character in your every day life, and you may almost physically hear your characters speak to you. Realize that this is actually a very normal thing to experience and there is nothing wrong with you.

I wish someone had warned me about that aspect of “listening to your character,” because I was extremely concerned for my mental state for a while. I’d be watching a show, and almost physically hear “gosh, this is awful. How can you watch this?” At first, it’s almost like hitting a brick wall. You aren’t expecting it, you don’t know what to do, it’s a little scary, and if you play the character a lot, it might be a very frequent occurrence. *This is normal.* You are simply finding yourself in your character’s thought process, and you are realizing just how much you know about them. It’s a subconscious realization. Honestly, someone should do some sort of study on it because it is a fascinating phenomenon.

On the other hand, don’t be upset if this never happens to you. While it is a very interesting and enlightening experience, it doesn’t happen to everyone. You do not have to almost physically hear your characters to be close to them or be a good writer/roleplayer. Everyone is different.

Step 8: Go with the flow

By this point, I know so much and I’m so close to Cray that I don’t feel like there is anything left to do but to just keep on keeping on. I allow him to change when necessary, and I listen to him about things I’m not sure about. There comes a point where making decisions for your characters becomes second nature. It takes a long time to get there, but in the end, it is very rewarding. He no longer feels like a character to me but more like a brother. I can’t imagine him not playing/writing him. I can’t imagine him not making witty comments about things I do.

Just keep on keeping on.

Step 9: Do it all over again!

Make another character and enjoy the ride with them as well!

Next week, I will be talking about how to create characters with more in-depth backgrounds and traits. This may be needed at times, especially with writing stories. You absolutely can make an in-depth background and still listen to your characters.

Question(s) of the week:

Have you heard one of your characters almost physically speak to you? If you have, what was your first thought about it? If you haven’t, would you like to? What do you think your first thought would be?