How do you make your characters believable?
Creating a story is easy; however, creating a believable story is an art form. Anyone can create a story, but can they create a story that draws their readers in so completely that they almost forget it’s fictional?
I believe the hallmark of creating a believable story is to create believable characters—characters who readers believe to be genuine and that they can relate to. That’s not to say characters can’t be whatever we want them to be–i.e., larger-than-life or too stupid to live. But that whatever their merits or shortcomings, they should be built upon so that reader accepts and even embraces those attributes or flaws as being elemental to that character. As both a writer and reader, I believe the entire purpose of immersing oneself into a good book is to escape into a world of exciting and perhaps unrealistic happenings. What’s the fun in reading about characters and scenarios that we see and experience in everyday real life? Personally, I like to read about larger-than-life and quirky characters–or about extravagances and over indulgence. That’s not to say that I want it to be so totally unbelievable as to read like a bedtime fairytale. But even fantasy and sci-fi novels have made a believer out of me by not necessarily spinning a believable tale—but by creating believable characters. One of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy characters is Penryn from Susan Ee’s Angelfall, End of Days and World After series. I recall being skeptical when I started reading the first book—as it seemed an unlikely scenario, but by the end of it, I was so invested in Penryn’s character that I read the next two books in the installment.
Whether the character is a kick-butt cop; such as Detective Michael Bennett from the James Patterson thriller series; or a psycho like Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—whatever they’re doing, your character should be doing it convincingly.
So how do you create a believable character?
I guess I should start by saying that a believable character is not necessarily a realistic character. What I mean by this is that unlike in real life—where a person’s behavior might be sporadic or they may do things that just isn’t logical, a fictional character is expected to be consistent in their behavior. For example, a character that’s been surly, cold and standoffish throughout the stories shouldn’t suddenly turn into all hearts and flowers. Sure, the character can do a good deed or perhaps encounter that one person that sees through all their surliness to the softer side within, but at his or her heart, they should stay consistent with who they are. A good example of this would be Angelina Jolie’s character in Maleficent. The character was at her core, characterized as being evil in nature. But she briefly strayed away from that characterization because of an affection that she developed for the child she’d cursed. Note that her “softer” side was for Aurora only—she was still at heart evil.
Fictional characters are allowed to be flawed—or to do stupid things. After all, we do want them to be believable. But no one wants to read about a character that’s received death threats, yet, pops into the local diner or coffee shop regularly as though nothing’s wrong—or they never file a police report or seeks protection. Unless of course, the intent was to deliberately develop a character that’s a simpleton without a clue. A character that’s been smart, savvy, and aware for the first half of the story shouldn’t suddenly do something that’s uncharacteristic unless they have a darn good reason. For example, if a character receiving death threats do happen to go about their daily routine as normal—stopping to get coffee or to buy a bagel at the same place every morning at the same time, it should be because they are looking to lure their prey—to set a trap for them. It has to make sense. Otherwise, it will leave readers unhappy with the character that they’ve invested in the first half of the book. Readers take that journey with the character—they invest both their time and emotion in them.
Another important factor in creating believable characters is to not make them too perfect. I believe that for every ‘good’ quality that you give a character–you should also give them one ‘bad’ quality. For example, if your protagonist is a selfless giver who volunteers her time at animal shelters and the community center, then perhaps one of her flaws could be that she’s perpetually tardy or messy—or that she struggles with her weight. This serves to make her human, as well as relatable to readers.
Here is a list of other key factors I believe crucial to character building:
- Invest in your character, give them personality: Note your character’s likes or dislikes; their favorite foods or most hated foods, favorite color or least favorite color. Discussing favorite places, sanctums, movies, songs, shoes, coffee bar, or even a favorite pair of socks can all be useful in character building.
- Get inside your character’s head: We typically describe our characters outside appearance, but we should also be describing what’s going on inside the character—such as how they think or what makes them tick. Whether it’s through dialogue with another character or through inner dialogue, describe the character’s views–their inner turmoil or conflict. Make them real to their readers.
- Stick to what you know: Create your characters based on people you’ve met or that you may have known for years. Note that person’s quirks, mannerisms, or even their flaws. This will help immensely with character development.
- Stick to where you know: Sometimes creating convincing settings can be difficult—especially if your plot calls for a place you’ve never been. I know that it’s not always possible, but I believe that sticking to places you’ve personally gone enables you to utilize all five senses in creating a scene that makes your character’s world more believable. For example, if your character is vacationing or traveling for business, choose a place you’ve gone before—such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, or even Las Vegas. This way you can describe it in detail, adding those small elements that you could have only garnered from having actually been there. This also applies to local points of interest—such as movie theaters, restaurants, museums, etc.
- Research: Not all plots are feasible with only our limited knowledge. So, if you do decide to set your plot somewhere you’ve never been—like another country, make darn certain you’ve done your homework. Research the area, learn all there is to know about its culture, points of interest, its government, laws, tourist attractions, etc. Same goes for assigning your characters certain professions or religions. If your protagonists is an archeologist—know everything there is to know about archeology. Likewise, if your character is Buddhist—know all there is to know about Buddhism. Do your research! You’ll have to convince your readers you know what you’re talking about.
Finally, character building takes a lot of work. In writing, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to give my characters make-overs or add-ons. Characters are built little by little over time, and the fun of it is that we can add-on or take off as much as we’d like. Like a Mr. Potato-head! I love building my characters—it’s the best part of creating a story. But I also want others to love my characters just as much. Make your characters believable by doing the research. Talk to others; use your favorite authors as mentors, study how they craft their characters–read more how-to’s. Creating believable characters will take a lot of time, work, and editing. However, it’s a fun process that you have complete control over—like a painter with a blank canvas!
Do you have a fun or unique way of creating your characters? What do you believe to be the most important characteristic of a character?
Join the discussion!
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