“People don’t really act like that…”

Should I be disturbed by this criticism?

It’s the most common thing people say when I submit first drafts. It plagues my rewrites through the process. Only after much editing can I seem to fully address the problem of:

Unrealistic characters.

Characters who are too forgiving. Who react in childish ways. Who talk in cliches. Who, basically, act too differently from living people.

Should I be concerned? How concerned?

It’s an odd criticism to deal with. Bad narrative I could understand. Poorly thought-out stories I could deal with more easily. But unreal characters? It’s damn hard for me to grasp how and why my characters come out so odd at first.

This criticism hits hard because it seems to say something about me. Do I not know people? Have I not been close to enough people? Am I basing my characters solely off TV, movies, and books?

Whatever the reason, it’s a clear reminder of why I need a Writing Club that meets in person. Not only so that the other members can let me know how badly I misunderstand my own characters, but so that I actually do meet real breathing people, aside from my wife and kids, on a regular basis.

It also reminds me that I do need to work against the stereotype of the shut-in writer who barely talks to people. I need to interact with people regularly and listen to others interact regularly so that I can give better voices to my characters.

I wonder if many writers struggle with this kind of thing. Do many writers have characters who seem totally unreal in the early drafts? I wouldn’t be too surprised if there answer were yes – it is hard to know real people, harder to create people who act like real people.

It’s a wake-up call, I suppose. Get outside, writers! Step away from the keyboard every now and then and meet people. Talk and listen – a lot!

2 comments on ““People don’t really act like that…”

  1. These are really great comments. I think it all comes down to reader taste. Some people only want to read about realistic characters but some of the greatest books have larger than life, symbolic or quirky characters that make a thematic point. If reading is a form of escape I don’t think characters need to be realistic. Even lighter books with “unrealistic” characters can be fun to read. But the older I get the more I realize that the world out there is full of real life characters!

  2. dksalerni says:

    I share this Neil Gaiman quote a lot with people: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

    So, it may not be that your characters don’t act like real people, but that you haven’t provided them with the correct motivation to do so — or at least haven’t emphasized the motivation or set it up as obvious.

    One of my crit partners persistently hammered me in the first draft of my most recent book, wanting to know why the 18-year-old guardian of my 13-year-old protagonist was doing such a lousy job of taking care of the kid, why he kept so many secrets and took so long at explaining things that the protag kept wandering off and getting into trouble. She said it wasn’t realistic. I tried to think of convoluted reasons for the guy to act this way before I finally realized the answer was staring me in the face. He’s 18. Just a kid himself. He doesn’t know how to be a good guardian OR what he should tell his ward and what he should not. His own inexperience was the problem

    In the second draft, I emphasized his youth more, and nobody ever questioned again that he wasn’t acting like a real person.

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