What College Essays Taught Me about Crafting Realistic Characters

In case you were wondering, no, my unexpected absence was not because I was abducted by fluffy purple aliens and forced to eat raw oysters while listening to monkeys sing opera under pain of death. I was busy with something far more consuming and stressful: college applications.

That process can be described in two parts, namely, a) wrestling with something very much akin to a word that starts with B and rhymes with aristocracy, and b) writing college essays.

The good news is this experience is now over, leaving me to realize that I actually learned an important thing from writing those soul-sucking essays.

Because they were indeed soul-sucking. They forced me to search within the deepest depths of my soul and discover who I, Elisha the Human, really am and what motivates me. This is not an easy task. Then I was obliged to convey these discoveries into essay format, showing admissions officers that I was more than letters and numbers and stats. I had to show them that I was a real human, made up of flesh and blood. I had to show them that I was charming enough to haunt their university’s halls for the next four years.

Basically, this is the same thing writers try to do with their characters. In my mind, my characters are more than just words on a page. They’re real people. As a writer, it’s my job to show to you, the reader, the same things I strove to convey to admissions officers. To make my characters feel real, likeable, and worthy of spending the whole book with.

I don’t have the audacity to call myself an expert at writing college essays, but during the application process, I devoured numerous books and articles on the subject, as well as studied dozens of successful essays. Through all this research, I discovered one very important tool to demonstrate humanity, whether it’s an applicant or a character: use specific details.

A character can have all the right ingredients, like a solid goal, detailed appearance, juicy inner conflict, and a perfect flaw, but if he doesn’t have specific memories, habits, rituals, quirks, and/or hobbies, he falls flat.

Aesthetic Pictures Of People - Largest Wallpaper Portal

A recent example is Mr. Betteredge from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. In addition to a unique and endearing voice, he loves his Robinson Crusoe and refers to it whenever he has any difficulties, convinced that it’s practically a prophetic voice. He adores it so much that he’s worn out seven whole copies, dear old man.

Also in The Moonstone (honestly every character in this book is wonderfully whimsical and unique) is Sergeant Cuff, who’s a detective from London. In his work he deals with cutthroat thieves, murderers, and other folks of ill repute, but his real passion is for roses. Yeah, roses. When he’s not talking about a case, he’s whistling a tune about roses, or talking about the upkeep of roses, or hotly debating the right way to grow roses. It’s hilarious.

mysterious red roses - the voyaging storyteller

Another example is in a book I’m beta-reading. The main character was relatable and sympathetic from the beginning but I didn’t really begin to root for her and invest in her until I read about one of her memories, why she’s always sipping on ginger tea to comfort her. It’s because she once threw up on her crush (eventual husband) and was naturally mortified, but he laughed and was super patient and kind, offering her ginger tea to help calm her stomach.

Such details can be found all around us, in ourselves and people we meet. There’s a guy in my swim team who adores pineapples, so much so that he’s eaten them with his breakfast every single day of his life. My brother Micah loves ostriches and is quick to defend them if people talk bad about them. When I do exercises that require reps, like lifting weights, I learn how to count in different languages so I don’t get bored.

Humans have hundreds of little memories and quirks like these, and the more a character has, the more fleshed out they feel. Even if you’re not a writer, I think it’s interesting to observe these endearing traits in our fellow humans and marvel at the creativity of our Creator.


In other news, yes, I am back to blogging! During my long absence I have spruced up the website and added some cosmetic touches, so if it tickles your fancy, explore! Other than that, I have a ton of exciting plans up my sleeve that I can’t wait to share with you all, and I hope to be posting more regularly. πŸ˜‰

But in the meantime, as always…

Bon Voyage!

4 thoughts on “What College Essays Taught Me about Crafting Realistic Characters

  1. This is a great post, Elisha!! I love that you addressed quirks – those are so important!! AND SEVEN COPIES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE!?!?! DUUUUUUDE!!! Anyway, great job!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yesssss. This post is spot-on and super helpful, Elisha!! It just struck me as well that my favorite author bios are made up of these quirky and distinct human details, too. It’s beautiful how the little things about people tell us so much about them.

    Aaaaand now I have another reason to read The Moonstone. XD

    Liked by 1 person

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