Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Building Believable Characters

Character matters.

While this is true in “real” life, it is even more essential in our fiction. Even the most plot-driven techno-thriller or sci-fi adventure will not work unless it centers around realistic, well-rounded, and believable characters. This is because we humans are social creatures. We naturally bond with other humans, empathize with their struggles and triumphs.

But that is only if the reader can believe the characters you’ve created are real. If they don’t believe in your characters, they won’t believe the rest of the story.

Almost nothing kills a story quicker than two-dimensional characters: good guys who are like saints, bad guys who are Satan personified, or characters who are so cliched as to be straight from central casting. Real human beings are extremely complex creatures and each of us is an individual. There are no good guys who are completely good, or bad guys with no redeeming qualities. As the saying goes: even Hitler loved his dog.

So how do we go about building a believable, well-rounded character? The same way we go about recreating a historical period, or place, or the life of a Scotland Yard detective or ER nurse: by doing research. We need to accumulate all the facts we can find about a character and use a selected few of them to build the illusion of a real person. Just like when we research the Gettysburg battlefield, we might not use every little detail, but all those details form a background we use as we create a coherent, believable character.

There are several tools available to help accumulate details about your character. Most of them are in the form of questionnaires that go into various degrees of detail. You can find them on the web with a simple Google search. I have tried a couple of these, but sometimes find they seem to go into too much detail. Do I need to know my character’s favorite color? Maybe. Do I need to know what happened to her in her seventh grade social studies class? Again, I don’t know. I might, but it seems like I’m expending a great deal of energy creating a dossier of facts I might never use.

I prefer to building my characters as the story demands it. For example, the lead character meets an attractive woman and considers asking her out. Does he? If he doesn’t, why not? What incident in his past leads him to make the decision? I will answer that question when it comes up. And his response to the result of that decision informs his next decision. It’s how real life works, so it feels real.

Granted, I don’t create the character out of nowhere when I begin the story. I generally already have created the broad strokes of the character before I write a word. I have a broad foundation to begin with and add on to that as the story requires. These are the items I have in my character’s foundation before I begin the story:

Physical description. I always know (at least in general terms) what my character’s look like, though I seldom describe my characters unless it is germane to the story. However, if my character is unusually tall, or short, or has some feature they are particularly self-conscious about, it will influence how they interact with others and the world around them.

Education. While educational level isn’t the absolute about world view, it can indicate a great deal. Odds are a woman who dropped out of school in the tenth grade will have a much different view of the world than the one with a doctorate in microbiology. They will react differently to adversity. They will speak differently. They will likely be entirely different.

Occupation. Again, a character’s occupation has a great deal to do with how they approach the world around them and how they react to it. To continue with the example above, a waitress at a greasy spoon diner would probably have certain real world or street smarts a medical researcher wouldn’t.

Family. As much an influence as education and occupation; it’s where we all learn to properly interact with others—or not. Are the character’s parents alive? Siblings? What was family life like as the character grew up? If still alive, what is the character’s relationship like with her family? Are they close? Barely speaking? Some, but not others? Are they married? Divorced? Children?

There are other things I sometimes consider (such as where the character is from, if different from the story’s location) but the four items above form the foundation of all my characters. Everything else is a detail that can just be added to the foundation, another layer, if you will.

And always remember that none of us are perfect. Not you, not me, not the person sitting behind you in the coffee shop, not the Queen of England. Your characters shouldn’t be either. It’s our fears and flaws and how often we overcome them that makes humanity interesting and beautiful. The same should be true for our characters.

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