Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Strategies to Create Believable Characters (with illustrations -- kinda)

Recently I’ve noticed a lot of questions regarding how to build a believable character. It’s easy to look up the fundamental equation:

Name + Appearance + Background + Strengths + Weaknesses + Desire(s) + Conflicts = Character

More or less.

But we’re not creating a product of a calculation: we’re creating a person. As predictable as some scientists might say people are, there’s one wild tangent that equations can’t provide for – change. If your story flourishes the way it should, your character will come out the other end different, whether they grow or shrink or become enlightened or crumble. It can be either progressive or regressive, but your character will represent and embody every event that occurs in those pages that you write.

To get there, however, you must know who your character is from the very beginning, page one, first word.

As an example, let’s use Jason.

This is Jason. He’s sixteen (almost seventeen), a Virgo, a native of Pittsburgh (a much different Pittsburgh than we know today), and he’s a character in a story of mine that I wrote when I was sixteen (and then rewrote at nineteen, and am presently rewriting again at twenty-four). I know this guy so well that I could slap him clear across the face and then feel his own shock of adrenaline (he’s never had a girl slap him either, so that would be mildly startling).

His appearance changes throughout the books, but for the most part, he looks like this:

His main driving force is answers. He hates not having an answer to something, the way someone with mild OCD must check and double-check locks or stove knobs, etc. (Actually, he also does have OCD ritual tendencies.)

He’s slender, lanky, awkward with his body, and in a cast that includes several supernaturally strong characters, he’s pretty much flabby.

He’s lived in the same house with his single well-to-do mother in the same bubble of a borough all his life.

He’s extremely acute, strong in the subjects of history and politics and military strategies, and he’s like one of those scientists who would tell you that people are predictable. He understands facts, not emotions, so don’t expect him to understand feelings.

So, there’s Jason.

Be quiet, Jason. The adults are speaking now.

Anyway. Is this really enough to make a character? It’s a good start, but it’s only a start. This guy is so complex, which is why he’s up there scowling at me.

Next, we need layers. We need to flesh him out. It’s important that, if someone asks particular questions of your character, you know the answer. I like to choose particularly fun questions:

What pisses off your character most? How does your character take out his or her anger? Eating? Shopping? Ranting at anything within a span of ten feet? Fifty feet? The moon?

What’s your character’s living situation? Does your character live with their parents? Siblings? Pets? Does your character like their parents, siblings, pets? Does your character’s parents, siblings, pets like your character?

What’s your character like behind the wheel? (Even if your character is in a fantasy world without cars, the way someone drives and the car they might drive says A LOT about them.)

If your character had a blog, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc., what sort of crap would they post or pin or reblog? (No, really, THIS IS CRUCIAL.)

If you open up your character’s wardrobe, what would you find? Is it organized? Is it in disarray? What sorts of colors and textures do you see?

Thinking of these things before you start writing will help add that third dimension to your character, but if you’ve read anywhere on the internet about writing, or if you’ve taken a class, you know already to SHOW these things, and not TELL them. This is a difficult technique, and it’ll take practice to do it naturally and make it effortless.

Instead of saying “Jason was angry”, I might show it in one of these ways:
  • When he’s upset, he tends to haul it inside and sulk far away from people. He doesn’t know how to deal with his own emotions either, and at sixteen, even if he denies it, he’s got plenty emotions to deal with.
  • He might lash out with words and not think about the aftershocks, or the aftershock’s aftershocks. He might be intelligent, but he sucks in social situations.
  • If I were to write in his perspective, I show “I was angry” by having him mentally rant about whatever pissed him off, and his rants would be particularly scathing.
  • He might appear wound up tight – fists, a clenched jaw, tightness around the eyes, a twitch in his eyebrow, and a really red face. I mean like PURPLE. (For additional suggestions, check out this awesome body language chart via this awesome blog.)

I regret nothing.

So, start thinking about your characters all the time. When you’re caught in a conundrum, like another car cutting you off on the road and then slamming on their brakes, how would your characters react? (This also might be beneficial because it’ll keep you from raging and seeking revenge on said driver – which is not something I do, of course, no, never.) When you’re at the grocery store and you’re trying to decide between butter and omg-I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter or whatever it is, think about what your characters would do. And then stand there for hours, so that one of the employees comes up behind you and says, “…..It’s not that tough.” And then you can think of what your characters would do in that situation as well.

If you’re thinking about your characters all the time, if you’re talking to your friends about these characters like they’re real people, you’re doing it right.

If your characters are talking to you and someone refers to your character as a “character” and you get pissed off and say, “They’re real people, okay? And they have a name,” then you’re doing it best.

I’m serious.

In order to sink your fingers into the lives of your characters, they’re going to sink their fingers into your life as well.

Now where did he go? I think he’s off to sulk. I’ll go find him and give him a noogie.
Some tips:
  • Balance. Between strengths and weaknesses, there must be an even balance to make a character intriguing. Jason has Sherlockian tendencies in that he’s able to put things together to find answers, and he’s especially intelligent with strategy. To counter that, emotions, especially the type that fluctuate, often elude him. He’s also physically weak, has a bit of a temper, addictive habits, is a social reject, awkward with weapons, and cannot function without structure.
  • Character voice. Colloquialisms. Personal dictionary. Your character will speak like him or herself, not like any other character. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I can tell the difference between identical twins because of the way they talk, and also with—
  • Gestures, mannerisms, ticks, or the way the character holds him or herself. Not every character will roll their eyes or slap their palm to their faces or do a pee dance when they’re trying to hold it in.
  • Your characters might surprise you. I’m an outliner, and I often know my characters well enough that I can plan for most of their choices. Sometimes, they take me off guard and change their minds. If this happens, let it happen. It’s organic. It’s your character talking to you and saying “STFU, I’m taking over now.” So let them.
  • What else can you think of?


  1. Omg Yason so adorable I couldn't stop giggling

    1. He's so fantastic in this rewrite. I HOPE YOU LOVE WHEN YOU HAS.

    2. I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YASON. I am really excited for this rewrite just saying.