How to Make Your Characters Believable by Stefan Vucak
People are quirky, unpredictable, emotional, and often cannot be relied upon. Governed by the environment within which they live, knowledge accumulated over years of learning, whether formal or through personal endeavor, and simply interacting with others, an individual is a complex matrix of what it means to be human. Above all things, people are self-centered, always looking for that angle which will make them come ahead—that quick fix to bypass the necessary hard work in-between. That’s why we gamble.
Standing on a busy street corner, waiting for the lights to change so I can cross, I am bemused by the sight of pedestrians hurrying, dawdling, or completely distracted with faces buried in a smart phone crossing the other way. There are tall people, skinny ones, some not so, Caucasian, Asian; all sorts. Some are wearing smiles, while others scowl, and there are those who seem to be stooped like they are bearing the load of the world on their shoulders. The teens skip gaily, chatting to each other and laughing, looking on us oldsters as incomprehensible cubes, wondering what all the fuss is about.
So, what’s with the philosophical sideline? Believe it or not, there is a point. Purse your lips and ask yourself if you have really looked at a stranger lately, and simply from his appearance tried to work out his personality, social status, mannerisms, identifying marks? If you can see them, does he have brown eyes or blue ones or green? Is his face round, square, long, gaunt, plump? Does he walk with confident strides or is he hesitant, his eyes darting suspiciously as he pushes through the crowd? Is he carrying anything? If so, what is it? Does it help you identify him? On an instinctive level, do you like him or do the hairs on the back of your neck tingle at the sight of him?
Are you starting to get the broader picture? Do you observe people or does the mass of humanity simply slide past your consciousness as you hurry across the street, your mind focused on whatever it is you need to do? Finishing that chapter you’ve been struggling with, perhaps? The struggle caused because your main character, and maybe the whole cast, is somewhat two-dimensional, a nobody, and you cannot quite figure out why? Then again, you might be thinking: I don’t need to describe my characters; the story is good enough to carry them. You could be right. You could also be wrong, you know.
Deciding how to portray characters in your writing can be a contributing factor in producing a great book, or something that’s okay for a once off read. Every book has two basic components: action sequences and characters who do the action or have action done unto them. Many books rely on action alone, and some do it with superb craftsmanship. Others get into a character’s mind and never let you leave it. That can be entertaining and enthralling—if done well. But how can you tell whether your characters are genuinely alive and real? Simple, really. Think of a recent book you have read and ask yourself this. Do the characters stand out? If so, why? Or are they cardboard cutouts who cannot utter a coherent sentence? It is an instinctive thing anyone can spot. Unfortunately, many writers can spot it in someone else’s book, but are unable to see it in their own writing.
All right, how do you make your characters believable? Before you even start writing that epic, you need a detailed outline, a story skeleton on which you’ll hang the words. Part of writing that outline will require that you line up your cast and stare at them, then pick those that will star in your book. Think of a casting director for a movie. Your cast will be determined by the type of book you are writing. Is it a love story, a techno thriller, a murder mystery, a convoluted spy thriller, a tearjerker? Are you looking for action men, sleuths, hard-boiled gumshoes, sleazy womanizers, or just mean guys? What does this process do for you? Whether you realize it or not, and you should, you are taking a first step toward making your characters believable. You are thinking of them as individuals with personalities.
To make every member of your cast a living person, you need a police profile that goes something like this:
- What color eyes
- Does he chomp his food, or is he a dainty gentleman
- Does he swear
- What is his normal behavior: tense, relaxed, awkward, sharp…
- Special mannerisms, use of phrases, habits…
I think you are starting to get the idea. Why such a profile you might ask? For one thing, it will crystallize that character in your own mind. Whenever you write about him, the character will always behave consistently, true to himself. Any deviation will not be looked on favorably by your readers. There is nothing more irritating than reading on one page the character is five foot ten, and later, he is six feet two, or something like that. You may never employ all of the character’s profile in the book, so why bother? What this does is makes the character live, which is the important thing. He becomes a close friend, or an enemy. You will like him or you won’t. Either way, you will know this character, and so will your readers. If someone asks you to describe your sister, brother, mother or friend, you can readily spew out the words with hardly a pause. In the same way, you must be able to handle your characters in your writing.
Remember that cardboard cutout? He is a cutout simply because the writer doesn’t know him. He is a complete stranger, and he comes across as such to readers. That’s all there is to it. Well, there is a bit more, of course. That more being the dialogue.
You cannot handle a novel with a character not having to say anything—unless he is a Robinson Crusoe. Since there are no more unoccupied coral islands where someone can get away from it all and clam up, your characters will have to say something sometime. What they say and how they say it will go a long way toward making them real and believable, or two-dimensional cutout dummies. Some writers can handle dialogue with natural skills, while others agonize. How do you master dialogue? Grab one of your favorite books and check the dialogue. Why do you like it, and does your dialogue come anywhere close? If not, what can you do about it? That’s simple, but involves some sweat on your part. You are a writer, right? So, practice writing dialogue until it becomes second nature. Never mind about what, just write. Think of the last conversation you had with someone and write the ensuing dialogue. When you read it, does every aspect of that episode come through? And I am not talking only about what was said, but how it was said, what emotion was displayed, gestures, tone of voice, hidden meanings. If what you have written doesn’t match your memory, you obviously haven’t got it right. Give the piece to the person you had the conversation with and get his feedback.
If you have read this far, you are right to point out that there is much more to making your characters believable, but I hope I got you thinking and looking at your characters in a new light. By the way, get a professional editor to go over your writing. An impartial pair of eyes can do wonders for your novel.
Guest Blogger Bio
Stefan is an award-winning author of eight techno sci-fi novels, including With Shadow and Thunder which was a 2002 EPPIE finalist. His Shadow Gods Saga books have been highly acclaimed by critics. His political thriller, Cry of Eagles, won the coveted 2011 Readers Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist.
Stefan leveraged a successful career in the Information Technology industry and applied that discipline to create realistic, highly believable storylines for his books. Born in Croatia, he now lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Shadow Gods Saga:
Coming in August!