I can be completely charmed by a good romantic comedy. The twists and turns, the humor, and the love story can entertain me so thoroughly, I'll watch the movie repeatedly over the years. But sometimes promising stories in genres that rely on the relationships between the main characters don't work. It may be the writing, but usually it's the acting, or, more correctly, the chemistry between the lovers in the story. There's no spark. It doesn't seem real. And I can't get engaged with it no matter how clever the premise or how funny the jokes.
Relationships in a story provide the most powerful way to deliver authentic characters. But when there's something false about the relationship, the ability of readers to engage is diminished. So, if you want to improve the authenticity of your characters, the most important thing to focus on is bringing truth to the relationships between the characters.
How to create authentic characters by building authentic relationships:
Goals – Whenever you have two important characters in the scene, they should want something. They should be working to achieve a result that brings them closer to their goals. Ideally, the goals of the characters are in conflict because otherwise it's difficult to show who they are. People (and characters) reveal their inner selves through their choices and emotions, and success without struggles tend to make them stereotypes.
It is possible for characters to have a common goal and for that to be revealing, but only if it requires cooperation. Two people in a survival situation who work together and agree on what needs to be done and how to do it will be flat characters who are difficult to believe in.
Flaws – Real people are messed up, including your heroes. They’re also wonderful and inspiring and memorable. A deeply flawed character can still be likable, and even if he or she is not, readers are likely to stay engaged.
One of the most common (and for me frustrating) mistakes my students make is creating characters who are good through and through. Or characters who have the slightest flaws (usually, just virtues pretending to be flaws). Even when pressed, students who do this usually can't get themselves to include anything "bad" about the hero or heroine of the story. The excuse is that no one will like their character if he or she is flawed. I suspect the real reason is that adding a flaw to a character with whom the writer identifies feels too risky. The shame is that really wonderful stories get ruined because the characters are too nice.
The flaws, of course, get interesting and reveal truths when they challenge relationships. If you take any of the Seven Deadly Sins and give that Sin to your protagonist, it will impact friends, enemies, and lovers. The Sin will need to be resolved or managed in the story or the relationships will probably become abusive or broken. That is truth. That is engaging. That is storytelling.
Subtext — You can have the most complex character in the world, and, if he or she answers every question directly, exposes all secrets, and explains what and why he or she is going to do something, that potentially intriguing character becomes a bore. Truth makes you vulnerable. As Elvis Costello said, "it's easier to say I love you than yours sincerely."
So, ironically, authentic characters are deceptive. They don't answer questions directly. They speak the truth through what they say between the lines. They hide their purposes.
It can be very difficult to write subtext. For me, a lot of this kind of writing happens in revision. I actually print out the story, mark the "on the nose” dialogue and fix it line by line. Sometimes this means rewriting whole scenes. What makes it authentic is knowing the characters (which usually has been achieved by the time I'm rewriting), and allowing them to evade in their own idiosyncratic ways, dependent on how they see the other character (mostly the level of trust).
Acting techniques — Whether you use the traditional approach of creating a character from the outside in or the Method approach, which creates characters from the inside out, effort must be made in finding the truth of your principle characters.
I have friends who work from the outside in creating back stories, collecting pictures, and rigorously going through details from eye color to where they went to school to birth order. Some people use astrological signs and others create psychological profiles (like Myers-Briggs). Personally, I write until I begin to have questions. Then I interview my characters. I think because I’ve worked for so many years as a speechwriter, it's hearing the character’s voice that tells me what I need to know about the truth. In most cases.
Reality — About half the successful writers I know base their main characters on real people. These may be people they know intimately. They may be people they met briefly (usually in an intense situation that leaves them questions). Or they may be historical characters.
When a character is based on a real person, there are clear reference points. The writer has anchors in facts, if not truth. There is, however, a risk of getting caught up in the reality. When I worked on a historical novel, it was difficult for me to move away from the real events. It was only when I gave myself permission to provide a happier ending for my character (in real life, she died in childbirth) that the work came alive for me. But I think most experienced writers don't have too much trouble leaving the facts behind if it permits them to tell a more entertaining and authentic story.
I’ll note that in my story, it was the relationship between the protagonist and her father (well-established in the historical record) that revealed what most appealed to me, her cunning. And I was delighted to share how she got around his restrictions and the limits society imposed on her.
Freedom — Authentic characters rarely can't call their plot points the way the writer asks them to. Those who are manipulated were forced to follow a rigorous outline are less likely to come to life on the page.
I had this experience outside of writing recently. An actor took a character I had created, who was somewhat self-absorbed on paper, and turned him into the most sympathetic character in the story. He did this without changing one line of dialogue. The director did not rein him in to fit the intent of the script, and the result was a deeper and more complex story.
It happens on the page, too, and can make for some strange writing experiences. But when a character makes a break for freedom, the result can be delightful for the writer and the readers.