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Creating convincing characters

Updated on January 11, 2014
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Creating characters that are realistic and convincing is one of the most difficult parts of writing a short story or novel. It is also one of the most overlooked parts of writing. One often focuses on the plot and dialogue while forgetting that characters must be more than one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts.

This common problem among writers is a difficult one to overcome, especially when the writer does not recognize they have a problem in this area. Even if you know you are the best at writing characters, great writers never stop attempting to improve their craft. So how does one go about creating convincing characters? Here are some tips to get the creative juices flowing.

How real are your characters?

Characters are only as real as the writer believes them to be. If a writer is not convinced that their characters exist, neither will the reader. So how real are your characters? Do you believe they are real people, or just figments of your imagination? Until you see your characters are human beings, running around in a parallel universe in your mind, your readers will never find your characters believable.

Making sure your characters are real is not just about believing they are real. They must also do believable things and behave in a believable manner. What is believable or not may change from story to story. If a character jumps off a fifty-story building and survives the fall in a romance novel, you will have readers scratching their heads and most likely closing the book for good. However, if the same character performs the same action in a superhero novel, it’s completely plausible. Your characters must behave as characters are expected to within the environment you have created. Make your characters real, and your readers will establish a real bond with them that forces them to ride their emotional roller coaster.

Uniqueness goes a long way

Another common pitfall that writers fall into is creating cookie-cutter characters. This often happens when stories follow the same plotline each and every time. For instance, they create a female with a troubled past in danger, a withdrawn, silent-type male hero to save her, and a male villain who is callous and pure evil. The female has one child between the ages of seven to ten, and the male has commitment issues. The writer then goes to the next story and creates the exact same set of characters for the next novel, only changing the names and the danger in which the female finds herself.

Don't copy your characters from one story to the next and hope that your readers will not notice. Make sure that each of your characters stand alone and are not in similar to any other character. This is not only just changing the hair color of your female lead, but also making sure she behaves in her own way, has her own manner of speaking, has her own way of dealing with situations, and even has her own set of flaws. If your character is real, you shouldn’t have too many issues with them also being unique. Once your readers recognize your characters in one novel as being the same characters from your previous novel, it's game over for you.

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What’s in a name?

In short, everything. The name of the character is just as important as the character himself/herself. Do not force a name on a character. A poorly or hastily named character will draw the reader away from the story itself. The character already has a name, you just don’t know it yet. Don’t be afraid to ask the character what their name is. If you know your character well enough, their name will come naturally to you.

One can still struggle with other aspects of naming. If you have a first name but not a last name, or vice versa, don't be afraid to research names. Baby name guides are a fantastic way to not only find new names that may suit your character, but also to find out what the most popular names currently are. If your character has a unique name, you'll want to use a baby name guide to make sure that it's not under the list of this year's most popular names. Search engines can also help you in your quest. If you want a name for your slender, graceful female protagonist, simply type "graceful names for girls" in your favorite search engine and you will have more than enough to choose from. The more names with which you familiarize yourself, the easier the character’s name will come to you.

Try to avoid obvious names that are cliché or tacky. In the television show CSI, one of the homicide detectives is named James Brass. This in-your-face naming of a character can be insulting to your readers (or viewers, in the case of CSI). Don’t name your dentist Tony Gum, your resident gun expert John Hunter, or your pilot Skyler Freemont. While surnames originally had a lot to do with one’s occupation, modern times do not normally see such coincidental name/occupation pairings. These types of last names can be painful for your readers, unless you find a way to effortlessly turn it to your advantage. Don’t force it if it isn’t there.

Just like cliché names, you should also steer clear of using first names as last names. It is an easy cop-out for a name and shows you didn’t really try. It’s harder than one thinks, as these last names are seemingly easy to use. From time to time, there might be occasion to use one of these last names, but don’t make a habit of it. Whether it’s Steve Adams or Adam Stevens, try to avoid the temptation at all costs.

Remember that different last names have different meanings and you will want to stick within the region/ethnicity of that character most of the time. For instance, your Caucasian male protagonist from Northern Ireland won’t have the last name Rodriguez. Or will he? Interesting last names can add little details to your character that make the story all the more fun and intriguing. Just make sure you not only can pull it off, but that you have an excellent explanation for the deviation.

Finally, if a name doesn’t seem to fit, don’t give up. All of your characters have names that suit them, so don’t rush into a name for the sake of naming your character. You may really like a name, but when you apply it to your character you find that it doesn’t feel quite right. Try reserving that name for a different character, possibly in a different story, but do not force a name on a character. That will make the character suffer and the reader will notice.

Know your character

The writer must know their character inside and out. They should know details that no one else knows about each character. These are details that will most likely never be shared with the rest of the world, but ones that make the characters real people. To really get to know your character, write out a set of questions and ask them of each character. Some sample questions are:

Where were they born?
What is their favorite food?
What is their favorite color?
Were they a good student in high school?
If someone cut them off in traffic, how would they respond?

Even though you probably won't share the answers to these questions with your audience, asking them of your character helps you understand your character all the more. You’ll be surprised what you learn and how it helps you develop a stronger character on paper. It may even take your story in a new direction, or cause you to add that one scene which gives your character amazing depth. You can never know your character too well; in fact, by taking the time to get to know them better you will write them in any situation like never before.

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Skip the fluff

With such a complex task as convincing readers that the characters are real people living in a real world with real problems, writers may avoid writing multifaceted characters. Instead, they try to fluff up the character, adding details such as what clothing they are wearing in every scene. You should know what's in your character's closet, but you don't have to share it, especially if you're only doing it because you can't think of anything better to write. While it’s important to describe your character’s clothing here and there, don’t overdo it...unless, of course, you are writing a novel about the fashion world. If all you ever describe about your character is their clothing, your readers will give up on you. Believe it or not, readers enjoy using their imagination when they read. Give them something to imagine. At best these are Band-Aid tactics, and ones that will not fool your readers.

Rather than fluff up your characters with unnecessary words, try something different. For example, does your character have a nervous habit? Do they bite their fingernails or twirl the ends of their hair? Adding in important details versus what they are wearing in every scene allows your readers to get to know the tells of your character and also gives your character human traits. What about their emotions? There is no quicker way to bind your reader to your story than through compelling emotion. If you asked questions of your character like what was suggested above, then you will already know what things you can add to help the character become three-dimensional.

A character needs purpose

A writer cannot one day come up with a concept, throw in some characters to take up word space, and hope that the reader doesn’t notice. Each character needs to belong in the story, as if the story could not exist without them. It doesn’t matter how big of a role or how small of a part the character plays. They must have purpose. Maybe they are a catalyst for certain events that plagues your main character. Maybe they are a trusted advisor to your antagonist that provides him ideas for his villainous plots. If your character does not drive the story forward, then you may need to consider removing them altogether. If you opt to keep the character in the tale, make sure that they play some integral part. Otherwise, they are worthless and a waste of a reader’s time.

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    • bensen32 profile image

      Thomas Bensen 3 years ago from Round Lake Park

      Thanks for the information I need to come up with better characters so they are not so forgetful.

    • Angie Martin profile image
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      Angie Martin 4 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Yes, he is much like a high school English teacher. My husband always asks me how much I've written in a day. I'll say something like, "800 words" and he'll say that's a ton. I'll tell him that Stephen King says we should write 1000 words every day. Then on the days I do 3000 words, I tell him that I'm ahead of myself based on the 1000 per day. King has really put a lot of good knowledge in a lot of writers' heads.

    • mercuryservices profile image

      Alex Munkachy 4 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      haha! yeah, that lesson stuck in my head and now every time I use one I feel high school english teacher Mr. King (how I think of him now) shake his head. Also I like what he said about trying to avoid using anything other than "said" for dialogue. Good stuff, and clever of him to disguise his memoir as a book about writing

    • Angie Martin profile image
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      Angie Martin 4 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      On Writing was a great book. Stephen King gave me one of my favorite sayings: "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Now, if only I was better about un-paving that road! :)

    • mercuryservices profile image

      Alex Munkachy 4 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      Good tips. JAMES BRASS hahaha... Your point about clothing reminds me of Stephen King's "less is more" philosophy of description that he describes in On Writing. I agree. Sometimes leaving certain details to the imagination is best.

    • Angie Martin profile image
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      Angie Martin 4 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Thank you!

    • Geekdom profile image

      Geekdom 4 years ago

      Great Tips. Thanks for sharing and helping out fellow writers.