Thursday, October 15, 2009

Believable Characters

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I’ve heard there are only a dozen or so stories to write and believe it’s true. You know what I mean, boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy looses girl, that sort of thing. The ability to retell this limited number of storylines is derived by creating imaginative setting and characters.

So, how is it we create these elusive, yet all-important, characters?

As authors, we’ve all heard the old saw our reader must “identify” with our characters for our stories to fly and our books to fly off the shelves. Yet, despite this sage advice, all this identifying is so very difficult to achieve.

Or is it? Not so much as you might think.

Consider those you appreciate in life. What is it about them that calls to you, makes them interesting or likeable? Now, armed with those thoughts, can you guess what traits your characters require? Yep, those very same characteristic that resonate with you will probably do so with your readers. Personally, I’ve often gravitated to those who color outside the lines, just enough, and my best characters always seem to be those who are a tad irreverent.

Do your friends have a dark side, a weakness, a hidden strength, a freakish mannerism? What is their failing in life? What type of emotions do they possess and what brings those to the fore? What challenges them or excites them?

Once you’ve determined what makes your friends tick, by translating their idiosyncrasies to the page, you’ve got credible characters. They’re believable because they are real.

A cute trick I often use is to mix personalities to create a whole new person. In my newest manuscript, I’ve created a single character with the cross-pollinated personalities of all my siblings. He sort of the priest-who-murders-for-fun type. (Yeah, I did have an interesting childhood…)

You now have all the fundamental tools needed for effective characterization. However, there are a few tricks you can use to enhance your readers’ enjoyment.

Find that universal human experience and put them in it. For example, how do people feel when they lose a love? How about losing a child? (God forbid!) Use this sort of situation to bring their true inner being to life.

Face them with a timeless truth. Is every boss kind and generous? Not a chance! Have them face this type of conflict.

Give him a life-sustaining mantra and kick him in the teeth with it. “Always say something nice or don’t say nothing at all,” is an easy one. Put your character in a situation where there is nothing nice to say. It’s the old fish-out-of-water trick and it’s real effective.

Let your character become a better person. Personal growth is always accepted by your audience and, in fact, necessary for a good story. Let your protagonists learn and people will identify.

Read my previous post for more clues to effective characters.

There are a thousand ways to improve your characterizations, but this is a good start. Take it to heart and you’ll be a better writer for it.

Until my next post, may all your books be best sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze


  1. This is wonderful -- as is the last post. It helps. I struggle with characters and this is great information. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm glad to be of help. Another tip to help create characters? Cut out a photo or drawing from a magazine and keep it in front of you when you write about them.