How to make your characters believable
One of the challenges of writing is to make characters credible, people we can believe in. Sure, they may do incredible things, behave in unusual ways or perform in fantastic ways, but the reader needs to see them as believable first. This post explores how that credibility can be achieved by deconstructing the way we create characters. In the same way an actor will approach a role.
I've spent my career teaching people how to act. I think of acting as the physical representation of what happens on the page in a book. Acting and writing are inseparable in this respect.
In my first post on this topic, Speaking Through Your Character, I outlined some of my approach. I included a little about my own acting background to illustrate how I arrived at these conclusions too. This post builds on that theory.
The Character Trilogy
Think of Character as a story. It has a beginning and an end. We may not see all of the person's life in this story but that doesn't mean those unseen influences aren't there. That's why I'm calling this section a 'trilogy'. I'm asking you to think of any character as three separate stories: their motivation, background and relationships. These elements will vary in importance in a character's life. But they influence each other in the same way chemicals interact and create reactions. Think about your own story. Who are the influencers in your life? Which life experiences colour who you are? What motivates you to do the things you do? Put them together - that is you.
Together they combine to tell a character's story. I hope my Venn diagram illustrates this idea for you.
My first post defined these categories. Now I'm going to focus on how they overlap.
These are events which have happened in the character's past and are so significant, they affect their decision-making and motivation. Motivation is a driving force. In some people it can be casual, low-key and unimportant. For others it can lead to obsession. A significant factor in a person's motivation is the impact of their background. For instance, let's say your character comes from a highly competitive family. They are ambitious.
As such, the character grows up within a charged atmosphere of success, competition, high expectations. As they grow older they may copy this behaviour, become eager to achieve the best. Ruthlessly so possibly. OR - they rebel against their competitive upbringing. They "drop out". They hate the pressure it brings, the unhappiness. Motivation is abandoned.
I can illustrate this idea by using some classic characters from speculative fiction. In The Once and Future King, we witness the young Arthur (or Wort) undertake challenges that shape him into the king he will become. His motivation is clear, he must prepare for his role as ruler of a kingdom. All his background experiences are geared to that end. In The Wizard of Earthsea, Ged spends his early years in education, learning to manage his magical powers. His rural background affect his outlook, directly affecting his motivation. Ged is driven by his journey out of ignorance, like Arthur/Wort in this respect. Lyra, in the Golden Compass, is motivated by the past. The need to discover the secrets that surround her are what drive her onward. I've chosen three children to illustrate my theory. Imagine Wort, Ged and Lyra as adults. Their background experiences in these stories not only motivate them at the time but will likely do so in the future too.
Questions to help develop 'driving experiences':
What is the character's main goal and which events from their past shape and influence their drive?
How do they respond, emotionally, to that event? Does it upset them? Trigger anger? Happiness?
What secondary motives does the character have? What events provoked them? Why are they not as important as the main goal?
Childhood is a time for values and beliefs to be established. Attitudes developed are often difficult to shift. Which beliefs and values shape your character's motivation that are derived from their childhood?
What lessons has your character learned that did NOT arise out of any formal education?
What is your character's worst fault? One that might sabotage them from achieving their goal? Where, in their past, does it come from? When did they first notice it?
These are the people whose impact on the character is the most visible and dynamic.
Who, in your life, has had the greatest impact on you? Parents? Teachers? Friends? Partners? Now consider the form that impact has taken. It's likely that impact will vary greatly. Your partner will influence you in different ways to your parents. A particular teacher will have had a different impact. As I said in my earlier post, where other people are concerned, we tend to wear masks. You may speak/behave differently to your parents than you do to your best friend. These 'masks' need to be visible. The critical thing is to decide:
a. which people are the driving influences on a character?
b. what impact is displayed, how do the influences manifest?
We may not always meet these people! Their influence may be so pervasive they don't need to be there. Here are some examples:
The entire Harry Potter series is influenced by the evil Voldemort. We don't see him in person until The Goblet of Fire but the impact he has motivates Harry all the way through the series (and other characters don't forget). The same is true for the Game of Thrones series. Tywin Lannister has to qualify as one of the worst father's in literature! His influence on his children is huge and drives much of what they do throughout the series. He dies early on but this doesn't diminish the power he continues to wield. In The Night Circus, the two children, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are influenced by their respective mentors - Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A.H-. They are forced into a deadly competition together and fall in love eventually but the impact of their mentors leads to the ghastly and sad ending.
The driving influencers, as illustrated here, prove to be formidable in the power they exert. Plus, that influence will vary. To return to Game of Thrones, think about the different motivations shown by Cersei, Jaimie and Tyrion. They are good examples to show how influences shape motivations differently.
Questions to help develop 'driving influencers':
Describe one person who is never seen in the story but whose impact on the character is significant in some way. It doesn't have to be a major impact.
Who is a mentor for your character? Why are they? What lessons or experiences have arisen out of this relationship?
Best friends offer loyalty and support. Who is your character's "bestie"? Why? What kind of support (if any!) does this person offer? Is the relationship always harmonious?
Who brings out the worst in your character? How can this sabotage their motivation? To what extent does this happen? What factors can prevent this sabotage? (Intended or otherwise).
What is the character's family situation? If there is more than one person involved, rate the level of influence on their motivation for each person. Explain the reasons. Describe the relationships within the family.
Experiences, shaped by people in the character's past, have a profound impact on their life and the story. You could use any of the examples in the previous section here. While they influence motivation, this section is more about the way relationships DEVELOP WITHIN THE STORY. I'm talking here about journeys - where a relationship might begin and where it ends. Earlier I referred to the idea of characters wearing masks, depending on who they were with. This element explores the factors which forge those masks. The challenges here are:
a. Which characters have the greatest influence?
b. What have they done in the past to trigger that influence?
c. How is the influence sustained - even if the influencer is no longer present?
Here are three more books to illustrate the idea:
Frodo in The Lord of the Rings is influenced by many characters, we could debate who they are for hours here. But let me use one: Sam Gangee. The life-threatening challenges Frodo faces requires a loyal and stoic companion to see him reach his goal. Loyalty takes different forms as the journey (and their relationship) progress. It evolves as events shape them. Each personal experience, for both characters, will trigger a deepening of the characters. Sam's loyalty wavers at times but, as he changes to become more assertive, so does their relationship and Frodo's personal experiences.
In American Gods, Shadow's relationship with Mr Wednesday is a fascinating one. Again, Shadow's personal experiences, courtesy of Mr Wednesday, change him as a person. I think of it as rather like a puppet master pulling Shadow's strings at the start. Gradually that manipulation lessens as Shadow's distrust and suspicion grows. It is a relationship formed out of conflict and suspicion.
I've included The Lies of Locke Lamora because of the relationship between Locke and his best mate, Jean Tannen. This is another tale of loyalty, tempered by friendship which is tested in several ways. It is also sustained after his friend's death. You can say something similar about the role of Father Chains. This enigmatic character reshapes Locke over time, again, after the character's death. That's why I've chosen this book, because death doesn't hinder the influence. Personal experiences triggered by these characters turn Locke into the man he becomes, without them, he would be a different person.
Another way to think of this element is to picture your character in a hall of mirrors. Each reflection is influenced by different people in the story. Influences will rise and fall in their significance. But the reader needs to see who those influencers are.
Questions to help develop 'personal experiences':
At some point in the past, how has the character been bullied? Or intimidated in some way. How does the character feel about that person now? How has the experience shaped their behaviour?
Dreams can conjure memories from the past. Events which may not have been resolved to the satisfaction of the character. Describe such a dream.
Some experiences we wish we could go back in a time machine and change for the better. Describe such an experience for your character.
Who has inspired the character in the past? What form did it take? How does this inspiration affect what they do now? (If it does.)
How do you rate the character's self esteem? (Confident? Neurotic? etc) Who do they hold responsible for this situation? Describe an event from the past that helped define it.
That lyric from My Way is relevant here; "Regrets, I've had a few..." - what regrets does the character have and who are the people linked to them? How great an impact have these regrets had on the character?
Here's some advice on this subject from other writers:
"In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalisations!" (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886) - Anton Chekhov
"The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities." - Ramond Chandler
"For Gone Girl, I knew Nick and Amy had to be very believable, so I made iPod playlists for them, and knew their Netflix queues. I wrote scenes of them in childhood from other people’s points of view: A scene of Amy in high school, written from her friend’s POV, or Nick’s kindergarten teacher writing about parent-teacher conference night. Stuff I knew I’d never use, but would help me flesh them out. I do that a lot when I’ve hit a writer’s block — it keeps me writing and sometimes helps solve a problem. Amy’s Cool Girl speech started as a writing exercise, but that one I liked so much I kept it for the book. " - Gillian Flynn
"I identify with the characters very closely. At the same time that I`m outside, writing, I`m also inside, experiencing, and it can be very unsettling." - Stephen King
In my next post on this topic, 'How to Communicate Characterisation', I'll show you ways your readers can pick up on these ideas. Just like an actor, all of these thoughts are currently internalised. The next task is to externalise them - to find ways to let your readers know all this information without actually telling them!
Once again, I hope you find these ideas helpful to your writing. I'd love to know what you think. Please leave a comment here or on soial media. Thanks!