One part of successful books is building believable characters. When readers are reluctant to leave behind characters they’ve grown attached to, writers know they’ve done something right.
When characters seem like real people, readers are more willing to get invested in the story. If readers believe in the characters, they’ll believe the rest of the novel. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Gandalf. Chances are even if you haven’t read the novels in which these characters appear, you’ve heard of them.
To create believable characters, you need to know them intimately. The clearer and more lifelike they are to you, the more realistic they’ll be to the reader. When you know your characters well enough, you’ll know how they think, feel, act and react. You’ll know who they are.
Creating a biography or a character chart helps to flesh out your characters. However, sometimes the sketch you’ve created doesn’t fit into the story you want. If that happens, see if that character really belongs in your story, or if there’s something that needs to be changed about that character. Don’t force characters into a story. Don’t stick a cube in a circular hole.
There are three basic aspects to creating believable characters:
- Physical. People’s first impressions of someone are based on their appearance. Skin type, height, eye color and shape, hair color and type, age, weight, body type, state of health, body and vocal language (how does he walk and speak), and dress.
- Sociological. Character’s connections to the world. Family, education, social status, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, friends, general relationships with others, job/profession, etc.
- Psychological. Character’s personality. Temperament, passions, talents, bad habits/vices, hopes and fears, outlook on life, psychological disorders, and emotions.
After these three aspects are applied, flesh out the character’s past and future. Characters aren’t usually born at the beginning of a novel. They’ve had experiences and relationships before page one. All that’s happened to them influences who they are during the course of the novel. Let the back story show through in how the character interacts and responds to other characters and situations. Even for minor characters, create the impression that they have a life beyond the bit part they play in the novel.
Give your characters emotions and contradictions. Knowing the lives and personalities of characters is telling. Knowing how they feel about those details is even more telling. A character’s emotions and thoughts are what truly make him real. For example, Suzie is dieting because she wants to lose ten pounds, but there’s was this big, chocolate fudge sundae that spoke to her at lunch. She couldn’t ignore its siren call.
Another part of creating realistic characters is having them act believably. If they act out of character, it will undermine the story’s credibility. Make sure your character is consistent, his actions fit his motivation, the risks are balanced by the payoff, and his actions come from his emotions and intellect.
Finally, show your characters in action. In real life, people don’t get to know others by reading their bios. Sure, we learn some about their background, but we don’t really know a person until we see what he does. What readers see and hear for themselves is more powerful than what the author explains to them.
Readers are intelligent people. They don’t need every little thing explained to them. They’ll be able to pick up on characters from watching and listening.
What do you do to create believable characters?