Creating Believable Characters
If characters aren’t believable, stories don’t succeed. How do you breathe life into fictitious beings? Sometimes characters become so real they appear to take over. Sounds crazy? I’ve often had the feeling my characters are doing this. There are characters in fiction, like the inimitable Harry Potter, who’ve become so real we think we know them. Yes, you need a good story, but it’s believable characters that will make your story tick. Here are a few hints. I’ve used “he” instead of the more cumbersome “he or she”.
1. Give your characters human traits
You’ve created a character that’s two feet high with large, furry ears, one eye in the middle of its forehead and extra limbs. Does its appearance make it unbelievable? Not necessarily. If it’s in a good story and the reader recognises and identifies with its thoughts and feelings, it can become very real in spite of its physical appearance. The key lies with giving it believable human traits.
I call this emotional reality. If you achieve it, it will make readers of any age suspend disbelief. Some say it’s easier (i.e. to create believable characters) when writing for children because children are more imaginative. Children are wonderfully imaginative, but so are adults. I saw grownups reading and enjoying the Harry Potter books, and these were peppered with weird characters. Imagination isn’t something we lose when we grow up. What a terrible world it would be if that happened!
2. Give your main character a problem
A good place to start a story is inside the head of a character with a problem. What is his problem? How is it making him feel? A problem approached via the hero’s thoughts and feelings will make him “rounder” and more believable. If the problem relates to other people, this gives you the opportunity to create more characters, namely the people with whom your hero lives and interacts. Some may be nice and others horrible. Is it one of these other characters who’s creating your hero’s problem?
The best thing about starting inside the head of a character with a problem is that it leads naturally into the story. You could use a basic outline like: hero has problem - hero’s problem creates difficulties - resourceful hero triumphs over problem and lives happily ever after.
3. Describe your characters
When I began writing, I made the mistake of not describing my characters. Someone who read one of my drafts said of my hero: “But I can’t see him.” Oh, dear! Things have to be seen to be believed and that goes for fictional characters. We can hear them, through dialogue, but if we can’t see them they won’t be real. Writers have to be the reader’s eyes as well as the reader’s ears.
The other thing I learned was not to lump all of the character description together. For example, don’t introduce your main character with a complete portrait of his height, build, eye colour, hair colour, etc. These can be introduced gradually and worked naturally into the story. You might mention that he’s tall and thin when the reader first meets him. Later, a relative might admire his curly hair (which he hates) or you might say at another point that his dark eyes were angry.
4. Put yourself inside your characters
If you don’t believe in your characters, no one else will. It’s important that they become real to you. You have to step inside them in the way actors do when they “play” a character. Good actors become the characters they play, just like good writers submerge their own personalities and slip inside the characters they’ve created. Once inside, the writer feels free to say and do the things that character would say and do. It’s the character who’s talking. It doesn’t matter whether the character is likeable or not. Villains must be believable too.
Before my latest book, Angel of Fire, was published, it was read by thirteen-year-olds at a Sydney school. They were critical (writers have to be prepared for this) but one compliment went: “Even though angels and ghosts are fictional characters, this book was written as if they were real, living people. It was amazing how you transformed the idea of ghosts and angels being real in my mind.” Read Angel of Fire? See what you think?
Wendy Milton is the author of three books for children. The Doolally Kid (2005) and The Boy Who Disappeared (2006) were both published by Lothian Children's Books. Her latest book, Angel of Fire, was released in June 2013. You can find out more about Wendy and her books at her website.