This is from my presentation for the Inland Northwest Writers Guild at Auntie's Bookstore, July,15,2015. I hope you find this interesting and useful.
Creating realistic characters using the four stages of response:
Why realistic characters are so important you ask?
they are the heart and soul of every story. Most Readers want to feel engaged
and connected with your characters. The human experience is both individual and
universal. They want to experience “moments of recognition” with your
characters, whether they are human or alien. They want moments in which they
recognize some aspect of themselves in a character, particularly a vulnerable
or romantic aspect. They read about an experience or emotion that may or may
not be commonplace. Then they tend to understand and feel a connection.
If the reader can form an emotional connection and
relationship with your characters, and in turn with you, as a writer, you will
have achieved one of fiction’s loftiest goals.
Relatable characters are memorable characters. You establish
that connection between reader and character by making your characters
realistic, credible, vulnerable, and flawed, which is a daunting task when
human nature is without a doubt extremely complex.
It is said that all fiction is based on action and reaction.
Your character’s reaction to external events, and others’ actions, along with
other characters’ reactions, help move your story forward, allowing the readers
to become familiar with your character and to identify with her/his feelings,
emotions, and vulnerabilities. This then promotes the essential empathetic
connection between reader and protagonist. There might be initial action, but
if there were no reactions, the story would stand still, with readers never
having a chance to engage or identify with your characters, leaving them
I have written more than my share of fiction scenes and
something I have learned is never have an inappropriate or nonexistent reaction
when a character is faced with a crisis. When we face a sudden threat, danger,
or stress, when we experience sudden fear, anxiety, pain, or pleasure, some
predictable responses are triggered. We react in four possible ways, in a
The four stages of responses:
1) Visceral 2)
Physical 3) Emotional 4) Mental
In real life, these reactions often happen so close together
in time, that it is hardly possible to distinguish their order. Nevertheless,
this is what happens naturally, it must be maintained, if it is not, they may
sense something is off, and your character will feel less real to them. The empathetic connection they are forming
will be lost; pulling them out of the fictional world, you have created.
When writing your characters’ reactions, you will most
likely decide not to include all four of reactions each time a character
responds to an external stimulus, which would be an excessive amount of detail.
What reactions you do decide to include, be sure to maintain this order.
Visceral, the first
thing that happens to everyone being in response to an external stimulus is an
almost instantaneous physiological response. This is the body’s visceral,
involuntary way of reacting to and even coping with external stressors and
fear. Include sweating, shivering, shaking, pulse racing, heart pounding,
increased blood pressure, adrenaline rush, eyes widening. None of these are
responses we can control, and because they are involuntary, they must always
happen first, before any other response.
Physical/reflexive, after the body’s visceral response comes
a physical reaction. This is an instinctive, reflexive reaction that is
entirely unpremeditated, fight-or-flight response. Such as coughing or removal
of the hand from a hot surface, bringing hands up to guard face or pulling
Emotional/reflexive, a person will react with another
reflexive response, but this time it will be emotional. This can be portrayed
as a thought or spoken such as sighing, or cursing, again these responses that
are unpremeditated. There is a very fine line between the physical and
emotional, so it is best to use either one or the other, but not both.
Mental/rational, this is the thoughtful, controlled response
of the brain; it may take a minute or two to occur, after your character has
considered a response. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to come up with an
appropriate, rational response. It may be a verbal answer or a mental decision
to take action. It should still involve the primary emotions, sadness, anger,
fear. Avoid using all the types of reactions at once unless the
situation truly warrants it. These reactions can easily end up being cliched.
There are so many aspects involved in creating realistic
characters in fiction, characters who evoke sympathy and empathy in your
readers. As a writer, you want your readers to lose themselves in the world you
have created, no matter how bazaar that world or characters may be, people read
to escape the ordinary for something extraordinary, exciting, different and
entertaining. Your characters responses to dramatic situations should mirror
what happens in real life to a real person. If your characters reactions are in
the natural order they will allow your readers to identify with your
characters, letting them recognizing emotions that they may have experienced
themselves, this will engage them on an emotional level with your characters,
allowing them to become more involved in your story.
Here are some links that give some of the different aspects
of creating realistic characters:
Author Sue Eller wrote a great piece on the different personality
How to create varying, yet realistic, speech patterns
Ten Secrets to Creating Unforgettable Supporting
Developing Realistic Characters by Tina Morgan