Why are believable characters important?
An unbelievable character is not a likeable character. I have written before on creating likeable characters and why a likeable character is important. The two are so entwined together that they may as well be a python mating frenzy (you’re welcome for that imagery), and each is very, very, important. Why? Because the reader does not sympathize or get along with an unbelievable character. In fact, if the character is not believable the reader probably isn’t even going to be drawn into the story and whether or not the character is likeable becomes kind of moot. You’ll just have disinterested readers meandering around the outside, and that’s always dangerous. Outside is where the bees are.
For the safety of your readers and the stroking of your own ego, believable characters are super important for the weaving of a good story. But how does one go about creating a believable character?
1. ALWAYS KEEP IN MIND THAT YOU ARE WRITING PEOPLE. This seems like the simplest thing, I know, but when reading pieces I’m critiquing it is the number one issue when creating believable characters. People are strange. People are emotional. People do weird things. People have motivation. People have reasons for the way that they act and what they do and why they do it. You want characters that are RELATABLE. Write people as people. And on that note….
2. AVOID CLICHES, OVER-EXAGGERATION AND TROPES. Sure, sometimes tropes are fun and amusing and what the story line needs, like Abed from community, but you also hate him a little, because he’s a trope. He’s not very believable, but he is likeable. But the thing is, a story entirely populated by Abeds is something nobody wants to read (except for Abed). When you’re writing, a character needs to have balance in what is believable in a character. IS HE SUPER RIDICULOUSLY EVIL, SO EVIL THAT HE IS JUST PURE EVIL WITH NO MOTIVATION?! No. He’s not. He is not pure evil. No one is pure evil. People are much more complicated then that. Don’t make people simple.
3. PEOPLE ARE COMPLICATED. People in real life aren’t simple. Writers know this, because we avoid people. People, like TARDIS’S, are much bigger on the inside. They are complicated wibbly-wobbly personalities. They have motivations, fear, desires, quirks, relationships. You should never simplify a characters down to certain things, because the majority of your readers aren’t learning to read, so they do not need things about a character simplified down to “Jane likes the puppy”. It’s believable, because puppies are awesome, but it doesn’t make the character come alive for the advanced reader. You need more then that. Allons-y to my next point.
4. ASK QUESTIONS OF YOUR CHARACTERS. Any writing blog will tell you this. A developed character is a believable character. It doesn’t need to make it into the story - this is another issue of people who decide that EVERYTHING HAS TO BE PUT IN THE STORY. It doesn’t. I don’t need to know what your character thinks of lop-eared bunnies or whether or how her taste in candles run. Knowing these things is good for detail, but the point of the questions aren’t to inform your readers, it’s to inform YOU. You are creating this character. You, for a brief period of time, are them. You need to know them inside and out. They must become real people. When you’re informed, you can write a more believable character.
5. IT’S OKAY IF YOUR CHARACTERS EVOLVE. LET THEM. If you’re writing someone, but it seems off to you, and they clearly want to go in another direction, let them. A lot of posts on the internet about writing are about characters defying their writer and dying, falling in love, turning evil, etc. I always get a warm fuzzy feeling over that because it means that the character is going where it needs to go. Trust your instincts. Real people develop too.
6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO CUT AND PASTE FROM REAL LIFE. The awesome thing about existing is that you have 6 billion little documents with legs walking around the earth. They are believable characters, because holy crap they actually exist. You never, ever, base a character solely off of one person, but taking bits and pieces of personalities and real people you know or have read about. Don’t actually go around snipping off bits of peoples hairs and limbs and gluing it to your writing, because that can probably get you into trouble and sent away to someplace with padded walls and mushy peas, but don’t be afraid to borrow from real life. Go people watching. Think of people you know or have met. These characteristics that belong to real, breathing people will add credibility to your characters.
7. RESEARCH. When writing a character from a different race, country, religion, a certain point of view, a group of people, with mental illnesses or physical illnesses or anything that is a key component of your personality, do your damn research. Even if it’s an off-hand comment that your character is diabetic, you should know all about diabetes, how it affects them, what it means for them and how they developed as a member of the diabetic community. RESEARCH lends credibility.
Now, I know this post brings up several key points I’ve explained in other posts. But the thing is, that’s what good writing is. Writing is done on so many levels, but everything is interconnected. Good writing is not straightforward. Technique is not separated into neat little containers. Everything bleeds into each other and is tangled into this massive mess.You can see all the individual colours, but everything harmonizes and is part of a whole. There is a design to writing, an ignoring any part of it can lead to an unbalanced piece of writing, which makes it unbelievable (Which is totally why you should go back and read my articles on motivation, likeable characters, and the importance of research).
There are a lot of things that go into creating believable characters, and lots more that I couldn’t include, because sometimes I have a life outside of my computer (that might be an outright lie), but the important thing is to practice. Keep writing. Trial and error my friends, trial and error, is the key to getting it right.
And when you finally create the perfect, completely believable character, please let me know, because I would like to buy the rights to them off of you. I’m totally serious guys. I will buy them off of you.
(usual disclaimer about me not being the final expert, or even an expert at all. I’m just a crazy cat lady with a laptop and a lot of free time.)