Writing Believable Characters

Shrek says “Ogres are like onions.” They have layers. Well, so do believable characters: many, many layers.

Yesterday, I wrote about using stock characters in your fiction. I have written about writing an intriguing villain as well. Today, I’d like to give a few more tips about writing believable characters: characters who ring true to your readers. Characters who, when you put down a book, you feel like you know them. So let’s begin!

  1. BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS MIGHT HAVE SOME CONTRADICTORY OR HYPOCRITICAL BELIEFS/EMOTIONS. None of us makes perfect sense to ourselves. And when we think we do, others might see some contradictions, and this basic fact of life can emerge in your characters as well. It’s a great to make them real people! I’m reminded, right away, of Scarlett O’Hara and her family pride, and how that pride goes out the window in favor of self-preservation when she steals her sister’s fiancé. Now, Scarlett isn’t exactly likeable, and I’m not claiming you should make your protagonists flagrant, disgusting hypocrites. But lesser contradictions can really flesh your characters out. Maybe as happy as your character is about a new job opportunity, for instance, she’s terrified to leave her old life behind. Maybe, as happy as she is for a friend’s success, she’s also jealous and sad that things aren’t as great for her.
  2. BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS ARE MYSTERIES TO THEMSELVES IN SOME WAYS. Quick question: do you always understand why you feel the way you do about your life or events therein? Do you try to unpack your emotions only to find that there’s a lot of stuff going on and intertwining and you don’t necessarily want to get to the bottom of it all? You do? Then your characters should as well.
  3. BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS HAVE SOMETHING IN THEIR LIVES THAT THEY REGRET OR THEY WISH THEY COULD CHANGE. We all do. Now, when I say “regret,” I don’t mean they feel excessively guilty about something in their past and they’re trying to redeem themselves in their own eyes, though that could be the case. I mean that no one’s life is perfect. There is always something about our lives, and about ourselves, that we’d get rid of, or we’d expand, or we’d alter in some way. Maybe there’s a health issue we have to deal with. Maybe we’d like a bigger apartment or a house instead of an apartment. Maybe we don’t like our nose. Even the people who annoy us because their lives seem so ridiculously and unfairly perfect, there’s something they’d like to change. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to approach these aspects of life, but they’re a fact for all of us. Think about how your characters respond to such aspects of their own lives. Identify what those negative factors are for them. Even a little tidbit such as “This person can’t stand doing laundry” can flesh your character out. Of course, you don’t have to mention he hates doing laundry. But you can mention he’s wearing the same pants as yesterday because he didn’t get around to washing clothes. An example: in “The Crimson League,” Zalski’s wife Malzin (they’re the villains) knows from a fortune-teller than she can’t have children. I never say directly how painful and frustrating that situation is for her, but it’s hinted in her jealous loathing of her sister-in-law’s family and her appreciation of her husband’s acceptance of the issue.
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One response to “Writing Believable Characters

  1. Pingback: Keeping it Real in an Unreal World « moniquerockliffe

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