Creating convincing characters
“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”
“In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!"
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
So, how do we go about creating convincing characters? Here are a few tips…
Get to know your characters
Characters often feel more real to readers than people they actually know, and that takes skill from the writer. As writers, we start with a spark of an idea, the tiniest of details like a character’s gender, appearance, name, where they live, or what they do for a living, and then, like a real-life person, we get to know them.
Some writers use questionnaires to help them create fully rounded characters. Character questionnaires (there are plenty of examples online) prompt us to record a character’s physical attributes like age, height, size, flaws, race, accent, and how they move. They ask a character’s psychology: their intelligence, temperament, happiness or unhappiness, attitudes, self-knowledge, beliefs and values, their dreams and fears, what embarrasses them, what makes them happy or sad. They ask about a character’s relationship with family and friends, their birthplace, education, profession, hobbies, lifestyle, and major events in their life.
If you don’t already use such a questionnaire, why not take a character from a work in progress and interrogate them using a questionnaire to find out a little more about them?
Just because we know something about a character doesn’t mean we have to use it
The only way to write a convincing, vibrant protagonist is to know them inside out. If we have this knowledge about them, we can use it. If we don’t have this knowledge, we risk creating unconvincing characters.
But just because we know something about a character doesn’t mean we have to prise it into the story. Our knowledge of their background helps us decide how they’d behave and react to certain situations, but the reader need not know every minor thing that happened throughout their life. To do so would disrupt the story and make the character feel less real. We don’t know everything about anybody in real life, so we shouldn’t know everything about them in fiction. When using historical figures as characters, there’s a particular risk of cramming in every little fact we know about them—but we’re writing a story, not a History textbook.
We’ve all heard of Round and Flat characters. Round characters are multi dimensional, complex, and display conflicting behaviours. They’re usually our main characters. Flat characters are less detailed and often used as background or secondary characters, but they still need to be convincing.
Stereotypes can quickly establish a flat character in a reader’s mind, but if we want to keep our writing fresh we should avoid stereotypes like the alcoholic detective, scar-faced villain, or nagging wife. And be careful when reducing a group of people to a stereotype as it can be offensive. However, taking a stereotype and portraying it in a way that goes against expectations can make a flat character more complex and rounder.
Characters don’t have to be likable, just believable Our characters don’t have to be likeable, the reader can hate them, but for the character to be convincing the reader must be able to understand their motives and empathise with them. We must make sure our characters really care (because if they don’t, the reader won’t) and make sure our character’s motivations come through strongly. Plan your character arc
Convincing characters have a character arc. A character arc is the way a character develops over a story and looks a bit like this: the character has a certain profile at the start of the story, the character plunges into the story, and their profile changes because of their experience in that story.
In a story, a character usually wants something. They might want to stop a wicked villain, or win the heart of someone who doesn’t know they exist, and once they’ve achieved (or not achieved) their goal they change. If the reader understands why something matters so much to the character, understands their motivations, and understands their change, then the reader is involved, the character is convincing.
Be careful of characters too much like yourself
Characters often have autobiographical traits. We know ourselves really well, and it’s natural to include our own character in our creations. We take our emotions and experiences and put them into our writing. This gives characters a true emotional core and allows our readers to empathise with them. But be careful—autobiographical characters can be dull and unconvincing, so we have to make sure there’s enough distance between us (the writer) and us (the character) to see the character objectively. Is the character interesting enough?
People remember characters not plot
Readers turn the page because of our story’s plot, but they’ll remember the story because of our characters. As writers we spend a lot of time making such we’ve got a great plot and that can come at the expense of creating convincing characters. Plot is important, but if we start by building a strong character, then add a dilemma, challenge or conflict, we automatically start generating our plot. Starting the other way around, fitting characters into events, can be more difficult and less believable, and we have to go back during the edit and make those characters more convincing.
Creating convincing characters isn’t easy, but if we spend the time putting in the necessary thought, then our best character’s will stay with us forever.