Creating Believable Characters
Beth is completely engrossed in her work. Her fingers dance across the keyboard, bringing up new charts and graphs that she compares with printouts strewn about the desk around her. She’s on a timeline. A short timeline. And it’s up to her to find whatever it is she needs to find before…well, you can fill in the rest with your own imagination. Realize that, as a writer, this character has established in just a few sentences, the importance of her task. Whether Beth is a lawyer compiling final evidence before going to court the next day, or a medical researcher on the verge of discovering a cure to some viral contagion, her actions must make sense to the reader.
In any case, as a writer, out character must act and react according to the situations that driver her. For example. If our protagonist is a lawyer, she’s going to do everything in her power to complete her task. If she has to stay up all night, she will. If she has to mainline coffee to stay awake, she’ll do that too. The point is if she were a real person, she must do as a real person would do. This is how writers create believable characters - characters the reader will care about.
Now let’s introduce another character. We’ll call him Joe and he is Beth’s boyfriend. He is also a private investigator and Beth’s research is actually something that is going to help him with his current case. Her research of Joe’s evidence is important enough that, if exposed, will quite a few financial executives behind bars. These executives will go to any lengths to silence the two of them - including killing them.
So Joe is out about town doing whatever the private investigator does and he gets a panicked call from Beth. She tells him to rush over, that she’s found something important. Joe arrives at Beth’s location but she is not there. He can’t find her anywhere and he fears the worst - she’s been taken by the very people they were working to bring to justice. Joe leaves in a blind panic to simultaneously save the woman he loves and bring the bad guys to justice.
What Went Wrong?
What happens to Beth and Joe? Well, as a reader, you would hope that Joe rescues the girl and brings down the enemy. And in most cases, the writer gets it right and the conclusion to the story is a flurry of action, emotion, and closure. Here’s the kicker though. What if Joe went off blindly in search of Beth only to find that the bad guys didn’t abduct Beth? Sure, he takes down the enemy in violent fashion, but in doing so, all the careful research Beth had undertaken is now inadmissible.
Where was Beth? What happened to her? I’m sad to say that what I’m about to reveal is actually what happened in a book I recently read. As the reader, I expected Beth to be waiting on Joe in nervous anticipation - maybe chewing her fingernails - maybe reviewing her discovery one last time to confirm her findings. But no, her actions in this part of the book were completely contrary to her established character. Where was Beth? She was out picking vegetables (in the dark, mind you) for lunch the next day!
I can’t tell you how disappointed I was at this portion of the book. I invested over 300 pages of my time and attention into these characters and this is what I get? The end of the book felt completely rushed, as if the writer was too anxious to finish and neglected the polished editing he’d used throughout the earlier pages.
So how should the writer have approached this situation? The writer obviously wanted Beth out of the picture so Joe could set his thoughts on revenge (even though he did jump to the conclusion rather quickly that the bad guys abducted Beth - there was no evidence of violence or anything).
Let’s break down what we know about Beth and list some possible directions the writer should have taken.
1. Beth has discovered a valuable clue, has called Joe, and is waiting on him to arrive. The writer should have Beth:
a. Leave the house to pick vegetables in the dark for tomorrow’s lunch
b. review her work, double checking for errors
c. pace nervously while waiting on Joe to arrive
d. investigate a noise at the back of the house to find the bad guys have come for her
As a reader, I feel b, c, d, or even a combination of these would have made the character more believable. The writer chose option a and proceeded to explain her disappearance in retrospect after Joe has already confronted the enemy. There was no justification on her part to explain why she would leave - and in this, the writer failed in creating and maintaining a believable character.
How Do We Fix This?
Now let’s have some fun with this. Taking option a above, how could the writer have made Beth’s decision to leave somewhat more believable? As I've already explained, telling the reader about it in retrospect is not the way to go. The writer should have shown the reader on the page. Show the reader her frustrated pacing. Let her mind wonder over the importance of her discovery. Show us her nervousness at every tick, creak, and sound around her - that the walls are closing in on her and she just has to get out of the building/house. Show her writing a note to Joe, telling him that she will be outside behind the barn in the garden to get some fresh air, and leave it on the keyboard to the computer for him to find.
It’s up to Joe now. He comes in and calls Beth’s name. He expects her to meet him at the door but she doesn't. The rooms are undisturbed and there appears to have been no forced entry or that anyone took Beth against her will. Knowing that Beth should be there but isn't, Joe panics and overlooks Beth’s note because it blends in with all the other paperwork scattered about the desk. Joe rushes away to confront the enemy and save his girlfriend.
While still a little far fetched, I would have believed this version over the original because the writer shows the reader Beth’s reasons for leaving and doesn't leave the explanation as a one sentence statement (“I was out picking vegetables”) that doesn't even make Joe angry.
How do writers keep our character’s decisions believable? How do we rationalize their actions within the story? One trick I use is to create a multiple-choice question much in the way I did above. Start by stating the problem and then begin listing as many reactions or actions as you can come up with. Then, based on those selections, begin marking through the ones that work contrary to the characters already established traits. Next, mark off the ones that don’t lead the character in the desired direction the writer is taking them - in other words, if the decision does not drive the plot of the story, it needs to be marked off the list too. What you have left should help drive the story, solidify your characterization, and satisfy the reader.
Taking Development Further...
A bonus to this method is that, while writing down the various actions, reactions, and decisions for your character, more often than not, the writer might also develop a new and better direction to drive the plot of the story. More than once, I’ve used this technique and surprised myself by developing another idea that I could use in another story.
As you develop your characters, remember that the reader must believe the decisions your characters make are rational and make sense. The main thing the writer must do is to show the reader what the character is doing. Allow the reader to visualize with the character when he/she makes the decision. Don’t write like the cheesy horror movies where the helpless teen chooses to escape the killer by going upstairs instead of out the front door and to the neighbors for help. That is, of course, there’s a viable reason to go upstairs - such as daddy’s loaded shotgun leaning in the corner of the closet. And if that’s the case, be sure to establish the shotgun earlier in the story so that it doesn’t just appear as a means of resolution.