Characters are important in every book you write because people care about people and you need to get personal as soon as possible in your writing. As EB White said, “Don't write about Man. Write about a man.” (Or woman or alien or child!)
This is applicable for non-fiction as well. You will find bestselling non-fiction books are all about the journey of the author, or character vignettes within the book. In today's article, Grace Rankin gives some tips on creating believable characters.
Have you ever read a book and gotten to the point where you really didn’t care what happened? Or when a crisis arose and you felt no sympathy for the main character’s struggles?
Surprisingly, it may not be the writing style. It may be the character development. Creating realistic and believable characters is not a simple task, and it rarely comes easily or naturally to anyone.
There are three common mistakes that result in flat, unmemorable characters, but there are also solutions. But first, the bad news.
Creating Stock Characters instead of authentic ones. For example, in how many books have you encountered a “sidekick” who was just like the sidekick in the last book you read? While this is sometimes done purposefully—such as in a satire—most of the time it is not. The author simply did not take the time to develop the sidekick as an actual person, merely throwing him or her in as an obstacle or a story enhancement to meet the author’s own ends.
Manipulating Your Characters is easy to do—using them or altering their behavior to suit the point in the story. But this leads to characters who don’t stay true to themselves. It also causes confusion for the reader and apathy about what happens to the character. (He isn’t real; why would I care what occurs next?)
You can tell a character is flat if he doesn’t give you any trouble. Real, genuine, lifelike characters will have minds of their own. You won’t be able to predict their reactions in every single situation. You will have to alter your story around them at times! We’ll talk more about this later on.
Not Planning Your Characters Before You Start can actually cause both of the previous mistakes. This is a key error. When you don’t give adequate thought to the character and how he/she will grow and change throughout the book, it can easily lead to flat, dull characters who aren’t believable.
There are solutions to these problems.
Below are three guidelines to help writers from start to finish of the character development process.
1. Collect Information
As writers, we have to see our characters as real human beings. If we realize this—if we realize we need to know our characters as deeply and fully as the actual people in our lives—they will be more genuine. The goal is for our readers to feel as if they have met, grown attached to, and eventually fallen in love with a real person. To create such authenticity, we need to know everything we can about real people.
One of the best ways to discover more about the human race is to study it. Take note of the habits, tendencies, characteristics, and preferences of the people around you. Like bird-watching, people-watching is where we observe, record, and then apply what we’ve learned to our writing.
What drives the people around us? What do they get angry about? What motivates them? Why do they act the way they do? Dig for the heart of the matter; find that deep, inner part of a person, as far as you can. That is what you are trying to create as an author. The human soul is a deep, deep thing. As authors, our job is to dig.
A second way is to search your own experiences. What has happened to you? How do you process grief? What was it like when you flew in a plane for the first time? How does it feel when you find out someone lied to you?
Take these experiences, feelings, and emotions and put them into your work. Write from your heart. This will give your characters a true emotional root and allow your readers to empathize with them.
2. Create a Character File
An excellent way to “meet” your characters is by creating a profile. Rachel Ballon discusses this in her book, Breathing Life Into Your Characters, comparing this to a psychologist creating a case file for one of his patients. This document acts as a description of your character, inside and out.
In fact, psychology is an extremely helpful field for authors in multiple ways. Ballon goes over the importance of learning about different mental disorders when designing characters, sharing that people enjoy reading about others who are different from them (or perhaps suffer the same struggles).
Understanding how the brain works, how nature and nurture affect its development, and how events, chemicals, and disorders alter its function are crucial in crafting believable backstories, motivations, and quirks in your characters. It is essential for creating your character file.
When you craft your character’s file, write it down. Don’t answer these questions in your head or mentally tuck away your descriptions. Especially if you’re a new author, physically write it down. Look at it as an in-depth brainstorming session. Trust me, when you reach the end, you’ll feel like you’ve met a real person!
Ballon instructs on how to create a character development file, and hers has four categories (physical, social, emotional/psychological, & background). My adaptation has three.
Start with the character’s full name, age, and birthday, relation to the book or main character (protagonist, protagonist’s wife/husband, etc.), and occupation (or current activity such as, “Student at Harvard University”).
Then begin the in-depth “getting acquainted session” with Physical Appearance. As the author, you need to know exactly what your character looks like even if these details never make it into the book.
Have you ever tried to write but found your character’s face foggy, like you just couldn’t make it out? Take some time and develop a physical description. Hair—color, length, consistency; eyes—shade, brightness/darkness, texture; nose shape; mouth, teeth; skin type, freckles/no freckles; height, build, weight, muscle mass, bone structure, general shape/figure; scars, broken bones, outstanding features, etc. Describe every detail until you can see him as if he were standing in front of you.
Next, move onto Personality. This is going to be closely linked to the Backstory, so you may work on both of these (or even all three) simultaneously. The Personality is the “what”—the visible characteristics others see. And the Backstory is the “why”—what brought about these characteristics.
Personality is where you determine your character’s character. What kind of person is she? Is she introverted or extroverted? Intelligent or dumb? Quiet, laid-back? Loud, boisterous? Shy? Giggly? Angry? Cruel? Broken? What are her habits or quirks? Is she a neat freak or a slob? Does she love her job? Is she optimistic or pessimistic?
The final category is Backstory.
Start from the beginning of his life and tell his story up to the present day. Who are his parents? What was his home life like? How many siblings or pets did he have? What out-of-the-ordinary events shaped his childhood? What people in his life influenced who he has become? What happened in his life that made him who he is today—what contributed to his fears, his out-going personality, his cruelty, his love of jokes, or his loneliness? How did he choose his career? Does he enjoy what he does for a living? How did he meet his best friend?
The Personality and Backstory segments are where your psychology knowledge will really help. In psychology, you learn that the why and how of something are often just as or more important than the what. Why is she angry? Why does she clam up in public? Why does she have panic attacks in the car?
The what is found in the personality—the visible part people see, like a habit. But the how and why—the reason for this behavior and what makes the behavior real and logical in a reader’s mind—are answered in the backstory.
3. Keep It Real
As you write, refer to your character files even though the reader will most likely never see them. They are for your benefit. They are there so you can be as thoroughly acquainted with your characters as it is possible to be. The better you know your characters, the more challenging they will be to work with. With minds of their own, you may find yourself altering your story to fit their reactions instead of vice versa. And that is just how it should be.
Ask questions along the way. Would she really react this way, or would she actually say this instead? Would he really blow up like that, or would he clam up and give her the silent treatment? Would she really slap him, or would she just freeze in stunned horror and then walk away?
Constantly stop and put yourself in the character’s mind. If you start to forget who he is exactly, go back to your file. Keep yourself grounded in his essence. And if that essence changes along the way, that’s fine! Your characters may change in your mind as you move along. Just make sure that when they do, they are being true to themselves, and that their changes make sense throughout the entire book.
Although this is just a peek at some tips for creating believable characters, it is an excellent launching point. Do you have some ideas for characters? Start your character files today! Or, do you have existing characters that aren’t convincing or just need to be reworked? Create files for them and see where it takes you!
What prep work do you do when you're creating characters? Do you have any favorite ways to figure out who your characters are? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Grace Rankin is an author, freelance writer, and editor in Indiana. She focuses on writing tips and life adventures on her blog Writing Life, and will be submitting her first novel for publishing later this year.
She is also the co-founder of Sovereign Grace Missionary Press, a small Christian publishing company where she co-writes and publishes books and materials on the gospel and missions. Find her online at rightingyourwriting.org and sovereigngracemissionarypress.org, or on Twitter @grace_writelife.
This was really helpful. An eye opener to those who don’t know character development, especially who are new to writing.
Thanks a lot!
Glad you found it helpful, Ariana! Character development was the best class I took in college; it helped me grow so much as a writer. 🙂
Good article, and will pass it on to a FB writer’s group…
Thank you so much for this article! This is such a critical step for a successful story. I follow a similar process when I’m initially starting a book, and I think this has helped me solidify my process even more.
If I ever get stumped, or if I don’t know where to start, one exercise I’ll do is pretend that I get stuck in an elevator with the character, and then I type out our conversation. Are they mad that the elevator’s stuck? Are they late for something? What are they wearing (business attire or casual clothes)? Why are they in the elevator? Do they stand and tap their foot impatiently, or do they sit down and close their eyes? Are they reserved during the conversation, or do they open up? It usually gives me enough substance that I can use the dialogue as a starting point for character development.
That’s a really neat idea, Susie. I like that—elevator conversations. You can learn a lot about a person in a tense situation. 🙂 Great tip!
Vishal Bheeroo says
Aha! It’s quite an insight to flesh out a story, past and present and the way the characters are. I am taking notes for the novel and will try to come closer to my main characters. I like the idea of character files. I took one week break from the novel to reflect and make the story more interesting. Thanks Joanna.
Great thought,I really love this article cos I’m a young filmmaker and it will help me a lot thanks very much