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Creating realistic characters using the four stages of response

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?

Simple 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 frustrated.

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 natural sequence.


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 back.

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 types



How to create varying, yet realistic, speech patterns



Ten Secrets to Creating Unforgettable Supporting Characters



Developing Realistic Characters by Tina Morgan




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About T.A. Bratcher

T.A. Bratcher is the author of The Road Chosen with a few other books in the works. Learn more about her here and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Comments (2) -

  • Vanessa

    7/19/2015 3:01:44 PM | Reply

    I love that you make your characters personal I felt like I knew them all !!

  • Sandra

    7/24/2015 10:34:01 AM | Reply

    I understand now how you made the characters so life like in your book. I'm not a writer but an avid reader, this information is useful even for those of us who only read. Thank you