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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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How Do I Start Writing a Novel?

You can feel it. Maybe you can see it, like a movie, playing out in your mind, some characters more fleshed out than others, shining brilliantly and clearly as if you were watching them in HD. Sometimes it’s only a few key scenes: the middle, the ending, bits of the beginning. You know that the muse has chosen you to pen this epic tale, but where to begin?

It seems like a lot of effort just to sit down at the keyboard and start typing. What if what I write is bad? What if everything just comes out all wrong, even though it sounds good in my head?

I struggle with this because the answer is so obvious to me. Just write the thing, damnit! But not everyone has the initiative or can see the end of the project. Some people can only see the part of the project where you get frustrated and feel inadequate. Some people have romanticized the idea of writing a novel to the point where they don’t know where to begin. So here are some ways to help build your confidence and clear your mind when embarking on your writing project.


I know you’re inspired, but…


…you better learn this early. If you’re serious about writing, you have to learn to write on command. What I mean is that you can’t always wait for inspiration to strike. If you do that, it will take forever to get started or finish your current project.

Just sit down and write. The writing doesn’t have to be related to anything. Just open up that word processor and write the first thing that comes to mind. Sometimes it just takes a few hundred words to get the juices flowing. Writing prompts are a good tool: they usually ask a question that you have to answer in a few paragraphs. Try and do one a day if you’re having trouble getting started.


Tell people what you’re doing…


…but don’t just talk the talk. Encourage your family and friends to support you. You could say to your partner, “Don’t let me watch TV until I’ve written a page.” Like I said in my article about creating a writing schedule, I often don’t like to go to the bathroom in the morning before I’ve written something (this could be dangerous though and is not for everyone, only for those with bladders of steel like me!).

Create benchmarks for your word counts and announce them on Facebook. Knowing that people are cheering for you will motivate you to get more done. It’s also some very early marketing for you if you are self-publishing.

That being said…


Don’t wait for people to “approve” of your writing.


I mean this in two senses. There may be some nay-sayers who snidely ask, “Why are you writing that?” and “Why bother writing when it takes forever to get published?” Just ignore them and listen to your heart. If you’ve got a strong urge to tell your story, it’s going to happen, whether they like it or not.

You may also get the urge to show people your writing after only a few pages, to get feedback. I personally don’t like to show anyone anything until it’s complete. I do occasionally give teasers, or synopses, wordles, or word counts, but first drafts are usually pretty rough, and sometimes aren’t representative of a writer’s true potential.


Don’t start by…


…posting on forums asking: “Hi. I’m thinking about writing a book and I want to know how to get into bookstores.” Or: “Hi, I’m writing a book, and I want to know how to get published.”

Write first. Then publish. It’s good to think about marketability and the publishing process while you’re writing, but don’t think about writing and pitch editors and agents when your book isn’t ready. Not much is worse than hearing from writers who don’t write.

Writing is sort of like riding a bike. You’ve got to practice. The more you do it, the better you get, and the further and longer you can ride. It’s not something you’ll master right away–like Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours of practice for a person to become an expert at any skill. It’s probably safe to say that the first thing you write isn’t going to be the best thing you can produce. But that’s okay. Why? Because things can be re-written.

Join us next Friday in our little writer’s segment as we talk about what makes a believable character!

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How Much Should You Write a Day?

The first thing I like to do when I wake up in the morning is write. Before breakfast, before speaking, before showering, I strive to write a set amount of words before I join the rest of the world. Sometimes I’m able to write 1,000 words. Sometimes, I only make it to 200. But it’s something, and when I finally realize my stomach is growling and I should probably shower, at least I can say that I have accomplished something today.read more…

Getting Your Writing Done: Make a To-Do List

Happy New Year!

Now’s the time of year when writers everywhere are promising themselves they’ll get around to finishing that novel, to querying that publisher, or to writing that blog post. I know I’m one of them!

Here’s a simple but effective way to make a to-do list that you are sure to complete.

1) Take a piece of paper and make three columns. Label them: A, B and C.

2) In the A column, list three important, immediate things that need to get done.

3) In the B column, list three things that still need to be done, but aren’t as urgent as the tasks in Column A.

4) In the C column, list three things that would be great to get done, but aren’t a priority for today.

Here’s an example:

Write Chapter 7
Outline Chapter 8
Rewrite prologue
Write Chapter 8
Research for Chapter 10
Write query letter
Make a list of potential publishers
Outline sequel
Write Chapter 9

You may want to include two large tasks and one smaller in Column A. This way, if you do the smallest task first and check it off, you will feel like you’ve accomplished something and feel more inclined to get going on the next thing that needs to be done.

Then, the next day, re-do the to-do list. Maybe you have finished everything in Column A, and now everything in Column B has become a priority.

And, of course…

5) Get to work! Don’t forget to check off things you’ve completed.

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