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Creating Believable Characters, Part 2

If you missed the first part of this article, see here.

It’s one thing to create realistic characters, but it’s another to make your readers care about them. If a reader isn’t emotionally invested, they might put down the book and not finish the story. Here are some of the reasons we come to care about the characters in fiction, whether they are in a book or on a screen.

 
 

The character is familiar to the reader.

 
While opposites attract, birds of the same feather fly together. We get along with people best who are most like ourselves.

Who is the target reader for this book? Sometimes the protagonist will mirror the target reader. Not always in gender, but occasionally in age. Young adult novels appeal to teenagers because the stories are about characters who are their age who are in extraordinary circumstances. Teens may see themselves in the character, and identify with them and their situation.

Take Harry Potter for example. Why is it so popular? While there are a variety of answers to this question, one could be that Harry Potter is relatable to children around the world. He’s bullied, he does all right at school, he wears glasses, he’s determined, stubborn–and he’s not perfect.

Same with Twilight’s Bella. Why is this strange paranormal romance (a mediocre book in itself) selling millions of copies? Bella could be described as a blank slate; she has very little personality, (aside from the fact that Edward is so dominating) so it’s easy to imagine yourself as her.

Having a character that is familiar to the reader can serve as an anchor, especially in science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s like taking the reader gently by the hand and guiding them through a world that is different from their own. Sometimes the anchor will comment on unfamiliar events transpiring in the book and ask for an explanation; it can serve as a pause in the narrative so that the writer can use the surrounding characters to briefly explain something going on. This “fish out of water” scenario is a common device in many popular movies as well, such as Percy Jackson, (also a book series), The Last Starfighter, The Matrix, and Avatar.

 

The character is a person they would like to be.

 

This flies in the face of the previous statement. Sometimes, rather than reading about people that are like ourselves, we want an escape. Romance novels often have tough and fearless heroines so that the reader can imagine herself as the lady that ends up lucky in love, or in a relationship that seems too perfect for real life.

One series of books that comes to mind as good example of larger than life heroes is the Sword of Truth series. It’s a fantasy series by Terry Goodkind that was (unfortunately) adapted to a TV series a few years back. It’s about a woodsman named Richard whose life is changed one day when he finds a beautiful woman named Kahlan in his woods, and she seeks his help to destroy the evil Lord Rahl who rules her land. Even though Richard starts as a guy with a simple life, it’s hard to pick out any character flaws. He’s handsome and ripped, has a kind heart, is intelligent, and respected by his village. Kahlan is fierce, wields a powerful magic, has beautiful long hair, is respected (and feared) as a leader and refuses to give up and refuses to stop loving Richard, even in the worst imaginable situations.

It’s hard to imagine these people in real life as they are, but it’s easy to wish that you were them.

What you have to be careful of with these kinds of characters is how they grow. You can only place them in so many situations before they become stale and repetitive. Remember, if you make someone perfect, they become boring. This is my personal opinion, but I stopped reading the Sword of Truth series after eight or nine books because there wasn’t a whole lot to do with Richard and Kahlan after all of those adventures. (Of course, then there’s the final three books, which have an interesting premise, but I’m unsure of the execution).

 

The character does things that the reader can sympathize with.

 

Your character could be a raging psychopath but can still do things that make him sympathetic. He might be working towards a goal that is the lesser of two evils, like the serial killer Dexter, who hunts serial killers.

The reader must understand why a character is doing what he does. If there is no understanding, there is no connection, and the reader will give up on the story. A character might make a decision that isn’t explained in order to create mystery–as long as it’s wrapped up in some fashion at some point, that’s fine. But if your characters are running around doing things “just because”, the narrative will become confusing.

Think about your own life. What drives you to do the things you love most? Try to narrow it down to one or two words. Now choose one or two words for each character you’re trying to develop. How are they expressing these traits in every action they do? Do this with other characters you see in the shows you watch and the books you read.

Who are your favourite characters and what traits make them memorable?
 

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Creating Believable Characters, Part 1

When you’re reading a book, watching a movie or playing a video game, sometimes we get so attached to a character that when he or she does something, we react emotionally. Becoming emotionally invested in a character is a sign of good writing.

But how does this happen? What goes into making an effective, fully-formed physical and psychological portrait of a character that a reader can invest in? In the first part of this article, we will discuss character building, and in the second part, we’ll talk about how to make the reader care about your characters.

 

Character Building

 

So, you’re building a person. Congratulations on your recent promotion to God.

In all seriousness, you can spend a lot of time outside of your scheduled writing time building a character. You could write pages and pages of background for a character. This may help you flesh out the people in your story, but it only helps if this character development shines through in the writing of the story as well.

Sometimes characters just come to us. Sometimes they’re a hybrid of people in your life, and other times, they’re a clear picture in your mind. But just because they “come to you” doesn’t mean that their personalities don’t need exploring.

Here are some elements to consider when developing your character.

 

Physical Appearance

 

It’s one thing to say that your character has brown hair and green eyes. That’s a very broad descriptor. Just search for that in Google Images and you’ll get a whole swack of people, of all ages, shape, and colour. Broad descriptors aren’t necessarily a bad thing – some readers embellish the details they want a character to have, while others only take away what is written directly in the text – so keeping your descriptions broad won’t always work.

What is the length of his hair? Does he dye it? How does he wear it?

What shape are her eyes?

What is his ethnicity?

What does his nose look like?

Does she have any distinguishing marks or scars?

What clothing does she like to wear?

Does he wear any jewellery?

You may want to create a separate document that holds this information for each character.

Be wary of overloading the reader with physical description, and be careful not to dump all of a character’s description into one page or section of your book. You do want to leave some things up to the imagination. Just give enough so that your reader could pick your character out of a crowd.

 

Upbringing

 

The nature vs nurture debate is classic and probably a bit obsolete these days. Both your genetics and your upbringing will determine what sort of person you turn out to be.

So ask yourself:
Who was your protagonist’s parents? Are they still alive? What was his or her childhood like? Who were his or her childhood friends? Where did your protagonist grow up? What ethnicity are his parents? Are they immigrants, or people who have lived in the country their whole lives?

Sometimes experiences from a person’s childhood can resonate with them for a lifetime, which leads me to the next element.

 

Experiences

 

What we say or do at any particular time can affect how we live our lives. I’m not talking necessarily about the mundane choices of life, like choosing what to wear, or what to eat, but more important choices that could affect our careers and relationships. Do we decide to sit and watch TV all afternoon, or write a chapter for that novel? Do we take a chance and apply for the job with the higher pay, or stay where we are? Do we ask that cute guy or girl out for drinks, or chicken out?

Not everything is black and white, however. Maybe there’s an interesting documentary on TV that’s going to inspire you to write that chapter later. Maybe the job with the higher pay also comes with extra hours and unreasonable responsibility. Maybe the cute guy or girl has some other disgusting habit, or is already dating someone.

My point is to get you, the writer, to ask yourself what your character would do in everyday situations. How your character acts and responds in the world will form his outlook, and shape his experiences.

Try this. Open a new word document or get a fresh piece of paper and a pen.

Now pretend that you are the character you are going to create. What are they thinking right now, during an ordinary moment, as opposed to some high-drama point of tension in your plot? What would they be doing? What do they like doing?

Try making a journal for this person. It doesn’t have to be coherent, just write whatever you think of when you think about the character. You might be surprised by what you associate. Use this as a foundation for your character’s voice.

 

Voice

 

Think of voice not just in terms of dialogue, but the entire story. Every person has a particular way of speaking that is unique. Sometimes this voice is influenced by where a person is from and their experiences. Ask yourself where your character grew up. Do they have any words that they substitute? Do they say words in a particular way? For example, my grandmother’s father was Scottish, so she pronounces “food” as “fud”, because that’s how she was brought up.Take into account whether or not you will spell these types of exceptions phonetically, and what spelling you will use for other colloquialisms.

More importantly, does your character have good or bad associations with certain words? The attitude a character’s voice projects directly affects the tone of your writing. An excellent, recent example of this is the voice of the 5-year-old Jack in Emma Donoghue’s ROOM. Jack, an imprisoned and thus incredibly sheltered child, associates concepts and objects he has been told are not real with TV, (his one source of outside entertainment), and labels them as such by using TV as an adjective that substitutes for fictional or fantastical – for example, to him ice cream and other people and places are TV.

Make a note of these stylistic choices by making a style sheet–this helps keep you consistent, and saves both you and your potential editor work in the future.

 

Believable Actions

 

The previous elements serve as a backdrop to what your character does in your story. If your character does things that don’t make sense, either within the personality construct you have created, or within the normal realm of believability, you are going to lose the reader because of a lack of verisimiltude.

For example, the other night I watched Easy A. There’s a scene where Emma Stone’s character gets sent to the principal’s office for calling a girl a twat. The principal was played by Malcolm MacDowell. Instead of asking what happened in the classroom, he launches into a speech about how this was public school and it was his duty to “keep the girls off the poles” and “the guys off the pipes.” Emma Stone’s character hadn’t been to the principal’s office since junior high, and I highly doubt the principal knew who she was, since it seemed like a big school. He said that if he saw her in the principal’s office again, he’d expel her.

What?

There was nothing that proceeded this scene that established Malcolm MacDowell’s character as a no-nonsense, hardass guy. Nothing prompted him to start ranting about his duty as principal. I don’t know about you, but calling another girl a twat doesn’t really warrant a warning of suspension in most public school environments.

My point is, because I was unable to believe in the character’s actions, or suspend my disbelief, I wasn’t able to get into the story. There was nothing real about him, or the environment he and the students lived in. If it was a book, I would’ve stopped reading.

So how do I make the reader care about the characters I have created?

Tune in for part two, when I’ll talk about making the reader care about the character you’ve created.

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