Braak’s Guide to Humanizing Your Characters
So, now you are a writer, great! You have probably made a lot of characters in your writing, and gone to classes, and done workshops, and read a bunch of books, you probably know about ten times more on this subject than I do. And yet here you are, reading what I, BRAAK!, have to say about writing, as though I know what the fuck I’m talking about.
Well, since you’re here, let’s talk about how to humanize a character, and let’s be real about it, you know? Just. Real.
The important thing about characters is that when you read them (or see them on TV), that you don’t mistake them for robots. (Unless the character is of a robot.) That is what it means to be human: not a robot. Unless, I guess…I mean, I guess you could make a character that was technically a robot, but by virtue of their behaviors, they actually seemed kind of human, you know?
Well, whatever. Not only am I not a good person to ask about writing or story or things like that, but I’m also not super-great at understanding human beings or their myriad stupid feelings. You all just look like weird robots to me.
Anyway, here we go. Five ways to make sure your reader realizes that your character is not a robot.
5. Make Them Sad About Something.
Shit, people love it when characters are sad about things, because that is one thing that robots definitely are NOT good at. Being sad, or miserable, or brooding. It’s best if a horrible tragedy afflicted the character at one point, and now that character thinks about it at moments of heightened emotional tension.
I think this is the dumbest way of making a character seem human, because I think things like loss and personal tragedy shouldn’t be tossed around unless they’re actually going to be a part of the narrative. But don’t worry, there’s more!
4. Give Them Some Friends.
I mean, real friends, not sidekicks. You know who doesn’t understand friendship? Robots. But regular human beings have friends, and they talk to them about things that don’t have anything to do with the plot. (I mean, the plot of their lives. Which regular people don’t typically have, but if they did have plots in their lives, they’d still do things that WEREN’T part of the plot of their lives, and one of those things is talking to their friends.)
Listen, I know that you don’t want to waste time in your spaceman movie having scenes in which Admiral Laserblast does something not directly related to blowing up the Cholorian Hordes, but maybe just take a second out of the tension to let him be buddies with somebody. They can have a drink or a hamburger or something. You can actually learn a lot about a person from the way they eat a hamburger with their friends.
3. Give Them Hobbies.
This is kind of like the aforementioned, but have you ever noticed how your friends like to do things? Generally, it’s something dumb that you don’t care about, which is why not only do you not talk to them about it, but you get kind of impatient when THEY want to talk about it, because you very reasonably believe that everyone’s time would be better spent talking about the things that YOU find interesting.
It’s still there, though, and that’s kind of a thing. You know how a famous jazz aphorism is that music is the space between the notes? Well, maybe character is the space between the action. Or, anyway, character is defined by what you do when you’re not leaping into the air and dragon-spin-kicking Eric Roberts. Maybe you like to cook, or play the drums, I don’t know. As I intimated earlier, I don’t really care about your hobbies.
2. THE TRAAAAAAGIC FLAWWWWWW!
Let’s get this out of the way. The Tragic Flaw, or the Fatal Flaw, is a dumb idea. It’s a holdover from a very specific interpretation of tragedy that is literally 2500 years old, and has everything to do with a very particular cultural tradition that produced plays that no one even WRITES anymore. I mean, honestly, the closest thing to Greek ritual tragedy that anyone’s produced in the last decade was actually Cabin in the Woods (see, in this case, it’s the willingness to transgress that’s the fatal flaw, though I think this kind of gets muddied in the deconstruction of the horror trope, which is an essay for another day).
BUT. One thing that human beings do, with your inferior, fallible human intellects, is fail to succeed at things. People (unlike robots) just fuck shit up all the time. This is a pretty good way to let the audience know that the character is human: when the character messes up at something.
I know, it’s weird, because heroes and shit, right? But if you think about Indiana Jones, who was a pretty great hero, that dude was wrong about shit I would estimate half of the time. Wrong counterweight for his golden idol, wrong about Alfred Molina (that was Alfred Molina in Raiders of the Lost Ark!), wrong about if he could beat up that Nazi. Raiders is like two hours of a dude just not succeeding at shit.
1. Tell a Joke.
This seems obvious, but you know? It doesn’t happen that much. Robots can’t tell jokes, just human beings tell jokes, so that’s a good way to tell the difference between a human and a robot.
And I don’t mean a quip. Like a pun that an action hero says after he kicks a guy off a cliff. “So long, Cliff!” He might say. Quips, those are jokes that a character tells to the audience. That’s bullshit. That doesn’t make us think that characters are human beings, that makes us think the author of the movie or the book wants us to think that they’re cool (update: you’re a writer, no one will ever think you’re cool).
The thing about jokes is this: human beings use humor all the time, for everything. We use humor to relieve tension in stressful situation, we use it to bond with people around us, we use it because we’re bored and we want to think of something to do. I would actually say that, among human beings (as opposed to robots like me), humor composes at least half of the way that we interact with people that we know.
Is that right? Think about that for a second. How much of your life do you spend explaining the plot to your friends? How much time do you spend just trying to amuse each other?
I’ll bet if you broke it down, you’d find that most of what you think of as being flat, boring characters is just an unrelenting humorlessness.