I regularly take the the top voted question from readers and answer it in a post. With 85 votes, today’s winner was:
How do you create a reliable character in your story? how do you create a deep, reliable personality? So they would seem real? (Submitted by Elchanan Paley)
I am going to do something I haven’t done before and deliberately not answer this question, at least not directly.
This question seems, at first, like a reasonable, if basic, thing a writer should ask. But there are several issues lurking inside this question that made it a great example for how to ask better questions. It’s not a bad question, despite the title of this post, but it certainly could be a better one. And the way you ask better questions is to question the question.
Why does a character need to be reliable?
I know many unreliable people in real life. Part of what makes a person a person is their contradictions and flaws. Even narrators can be unreliable in good books. It’s by carefully capturing the important details of a person in words that makes them seem real or not. And don’t forget depending on the kind of writing you are doing, unreality is an asset. Consider Frankenstein, Darth Vader or even Harry Potter. Unreliability, or superficiality, might be the most important trait a character, or a person has.
Which writers have you read that have written good characters?
One powerful thing about books is there are no wires or strings. There are no special effects. Every book is just a series of words. This means anything one writer achieves can be studied by other writers. Go read how Dickens describes the characters in Great Expectations, or Tolstoy in Anna Karanenna. It’s all there. Of course you can’t see how many drafts it took them to arrive at these finished works, you can see every verb, noun and adjective in every sentence.
You might read these books and decide that the way these writers wrote those characters isn’t all that good, and as a writer you are entitled to your opinion (A great exercise is to take a page you don’t like from a classic book and rewrite it in your own style). But the way you develop your sensibilities isn’t to just read books about how to write, but to read whatever kinds of books you’re trying to write, study them and then write something yourself based on what you learned.
Pick any two novels, read ten pages of each, and then compare the different ways the author was effective, or ineffective, in achieving whatever thing you want to achieve in your own works. To be a serious writer demands developing your own opinions and you can only do that by changing how, why and what you read.
Why do you think there is an objective answer?
I think The Catcher in The Rye is a good book, but many people don’t agree, as it has 400+ one star amazon reviews. There is no one answer for what is a good book, much less for what is a well written character. The writing styles of, for example, Hemingway and Updike, are very different, but neither is necessarily better than the other.
This is part of the challenging of making things: you have to accept we are an opinionated species. Some people will like what you write and some people won’t no matter how good a writer you are. Some people will prefer characters written one way, others another. John Gardner, author of the classic The Art of Fiction, wrote that “Nothing in the world is inherently interesting… to all human beings.” If you want to write you have to accept the subjectivity of writing.
Why do you think I would know the answer?
I’ve written five books, but they’re all non-fiction. I have an unpublished novel, but that, in the grand scheme of writing fiction, isn’t much of an achievement. This means I’m not the best person to ask this particular question. Given how many writers make a living purely by writing about writing, rather than writing books on other subjects, there are many good places to start. Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is the first book I think of for new writers of fiction, but it’s easy to find others.