- Books, Literature, and Writing
Compelling, Believable Characters: How To Create Them Before You Begin Writing
Many writers know one of the best ways to engage a reader is to create compelling, believable characters. This isn’t the only way to enthrall a reader, of course; a complex plot and an unusual setting may also draw a reader in. Nonetheless, even the most intricate and unique plot will struggle to impress most readers if there isn’t at least one engaging character. It’s important to note that a compelling character isn’t automatically a likable one. They made be, as in the case of Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, a character you love to hate. Or they may be a character you feel uncertain about because it is hard to know if their obvious flaws outweigh their partially hidden virtues.
Compelling and believable characters are those which are described enough to give the reader a sense that they know this person, or, at the very least, know someone who reminds them of the character. It’s also important for characters to be clearly flawed in some way. This can mean anything from creating an ambitious, successful character who is addicted to gambling to describing an overtly sweet and submissive housewife who is angry and manipulative once you get to know her. Real people are complicated and contradictory, and therefore believable characters should be as well.
This list of suggestions isn’t comprehensive nor a “must follow” list of rules. Every author needs to find out which approach to creating characters works for him or her, and these suggestions have been offered in the hope that some of them will be useful.
Thoroughly exploring your characters before you begin writing is helpful regardless if you are writing a short story, novella, novel, or book series. While perhaps the process needs more attention if you are writing a longer work, even short pieces need to feature characters the author has taken the time to become well-acquainted with.
These suggestions are not listed in a specific linear order. Every author will respond differently to these suggestions, and, moreover, depending on the plot of the story or novel you are writing, certain suggestions will be less applicable.
It’s essential to know your character’s full name. This means their first, middle (if they have one), and last name. A writer should also know if this character has a nickname. A well-chosen name can help make a story more memorable from the very start. It can also, as in the case of the movie “Juno,” serve as the title of the work. Nicknames, if they exist, may need to be explained. Or, at the very least, the author should know the story behind the character’s nickname. In certain cases, moreover, the author should know the story behind the characters real name. This is especially true is the character is named after someone, or if their name has special significance. Name are occasionally chosen because they are symbolic. One example of this is the character named Christian in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
An author must know the age of the main character. If the character ages significantly in the story, the author should know both the age of the character when the story begins and their age at the story’s conclusion.
It’s helpful for an author to describe what a character looks like in great detail before he or she begins writing. If possible, the author should aim to be original and trust his or her intuition. Examples of original descriptions include “Her pale face was like an acne-scarred slice of the moon” or “He was shaped like a graceless deer.” This description should include details such as scars, blemishes, piercings, tattoos, body type, height, and so forth. Tattoos and scars can be rich sources of backstory, and, even if this backstory never appears directly in the story, knowing why your character, a truck driver from Georgia named Johnny Lee Johnson, has a tattoo of the American flag on his chest, is important.
How a character’s voice sounds is another detail to consider. Here it is easy to use cliché expressions such as “He had a booming voice” or “She sounded like a church mouse.” One way to avoid this trap is to explain how far the character’s voice carried instead of describing it as a “booming voice.”
A character’s quirks and habits should be noted. Does your character smoke, drink alcohol, chew gum, lick his lips when nervous, or stutter when she is trying to impress her boss? Habits can also include twirling hair around one’s finger to get the attention of men, or even slamming doors without realizing it.
You should also know if your character drives a car. If they do, it could be that the make and model of their car says something about them. If they don’t drive a car, the author should determine how this character gets to and from work and school.
The home of your character is often significant. Do they live in a house, cabin, tent, apartment, or somewhere else? Do they live alone, or with family or roommates? While you don’t have to describe every room in their home in detail, it is useful to know if they live in a cluttered space, or if they have a huge record collection in their living room, and even if there is outdated and peeling wallpaper in their bathroom. The author should also have a rough idea of what the outside of their home looks like.
In order to create believable dialogue, both external and internal, an author should have an idea if his or her character has below average, average, above average, or even genius-level intelligence. While an author doesn’t have to say “Patricia Sammons had an IQ of 120,” if you mention earlier in the story that Patricia is unusually bright, it is inadvisable for Patricia’s dialogue to reflect someone who isn’t that intellectually capable.
An author should also explore whether their character is in school, working, disabled, or unemployed. While school and/or work may not play heavily into the plot, this is still something an author should know.
It’s possible an author may wish to create a character from a background significantly different than his or hers. For example, if you are a biracial man in his thirties from New Jersey, you’ll need to do extra research in order to write realistically about a teenage Hispanic woman from south Texas. Emotional responses may be somewhat universal, yet other details, such as slang and worldview, will differ considerably if you create a character far removed from “what you know.”
Knowing when and where the story or novel takes place is important because these factors will influence a character’s actions and worldview. For example, a writer creating the character of a housewife should keep in mind whether their story is set in rural Alabama in the 1970s or in South Dakota in the 1940s.
Having a strong sense of your character’s fashion sense (or lack thereof) equips you to describe this character in a way which many readers will be able to picture. It’s not necessary to describe your character’s entire outfit, yet a writer should at least know if they have a favorite pair of jeans, or if they always wear black, or if they look as like a mannequin on display in a fancy boutique. It’s also useful to consider whether or not this character wears any accessories such as rings, a watch, or earrings.
What is the overall personality of the character? While circumstances in a story can change a typically laid-back character into an anxious one, an author should consider what his or her character is like under normal circumstances. It’s important to remember most people are a mixture of temperaments and should be described accordingly. In addition to determining the personality of your character under normal circumstances, it’s helpful to imagine how the character’s personality would mutate under extreme stress. Extreme stress can bring out the best and worst in your characters, and knowing what this could mean can help give the author a fuller picture of his or her character. Other matters to consider are whether this character is conflict averse, afraid of love, a risk taker, or empathetic. An author also should know if the character laughs often or seldom. If they laugh often, it’s useful to ascertain what their laughter sounds like. A cynical character may have a dark, dubious laugh, whereas a child may laugh with the innocence of someone who has never known true loss.
Thinking about what your character fears is essential. This isn’t so you can make obvious statements along the lines of, “Betty was afraid of snakes,” but in order to better shape the plot, when appropriate, based on the character’s biggest fears. Knowing your character’s hopes and dreams, those acknowledged and unconscious, is important because these help explain why a character is pursuing one course of action instead of another.
Sketching out the main relationship dynamics in this character’s life is another useful tool. This is the place to explore how the character relates to his or her parents, sisters and brothers, bosses, and friends. Even a novel may not describe at length the main character’s relationship with her older sister, an author should still be aware of this detail.
Depending on the plot of the story or novel, an author may need to know if his or her character can sing or play any instruments. Moreover, it may be worth exploring what kind of music, TV shows, and movies the character enjoys.
When creating the character’s worldview, it is wise to determine what groups of people this character is prejudiced against, as well as what groups or individuals this character may defend. The author should also know if the character believes in any sort of higher power. Religious beliefs are powerful and often personal, and therefore can exert strong influence on the character’s thoughts and behavior.
Spoken dialogue is a main way for your character to express him or herself. Consequently, an author should know if this character swears, uses short or long words, or has a favorite expression. Such expressions should be analyzed to ensure they are believable; for example, it’s unlikely that a Wild West cowboy would repeatedly say “Goodness gracious me,” whereas a dignified woman living in North Carolina may realistically utter this phrase.
Deciding where a character is living, has lived, and has traveled is also important because this can add another dimension to the character. For example, a single man in his thirties who lives in Boise, Idaho, yet was raised in Washington D.C. is likely to differ considerably from a single man in his thirties who was raised in Boise and who has never moved away. Moreover, travel, especially extensive or difficult travel, can change a character in both superficial and more meaningful ways.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating compelling, believable characters. Some authors may need to fully flesh out their characters before they begin writing, whereas others may feel more comfortable having a rough outline of their character before composing a first draft. Regardless the approach, an author must remember that compelling characters are a confluence of strengths, flaws, quirks, and contradictions who come alive on the page.