Do you have a great concept for a story but lack the know-how on creating believable characters?
You’re absolutely in the right place.
In my early days of writing, and I mean early days of writing, much of my character profiles focused on the physical description of my characters. Which is not all bad, but doesn’t really grasp the traits of the person you are creating. I trawled the internet looking for advice and guidance, found sheets to fill in and fill out, and still didn’t feel any closer to making an imaginary person seem real.
Fast forward almost twenty years and I’ve learned a lot. Not only with my own persistent writing, but the addition of a degree in Creative and Professional Writing, I finally feel properly equipped to venture into the art of people-building. Like world-building, but with people. Pretty cool, huh?
To keep this short, sweet and snappy, I’ve focused on a few key points to prompt your thinking and get you started on building your believable characters.
1. Create a back story
Everybody’s humble beginnings can give great explanation as to why they behave in certain ways in adult hood. This is essential to consider when writing your story, because you need to be able to convey and explain character reactions in a way that it makes sense to the reader.
The reader may not need to know the minute details of the character’s past, but perhaps knowing that Kimberly was abused by her husband will explain why she is so cagey when meeting new guys. Knowing that Kimberly survived this, gives you room to write about the anxiety and flashbacks she experiences. You can use this to describe her panic, her worrying and her defensiveness in response to other characters and situations. You can’t do this if you don’t know where or what Kimberly came from.
2. Create flaws
I know I don’t need to tell you that nobody is perfect, do I? So, please avoid creating characters that are angels, unless that is part of your overall concept. Flawed characters make for interesting reading. Through their flaws, mistakes and regrets, they become realistic to the reader.
Imagine having an urge to overeat when feeling emotional, and you read a story about someone who does the same. Instant connection. Or perhaps your character’s confidence affects the way they communicate with others and this causes all sorts of problems, write about that. Perhaps they write in a journal instead but then this falls into the wrong hands… Or perhaps your character assumes the role of the know-it-all and they never listen, how might this affect the story? How might the other characters perceive this arrogance? How can you write about it?
3. Create a goal
After you’ve spent time exploring the back story, it’s time to think about what your character is trying to achieve. It has to be something tangible, it has to be something that could make a huge difference to theirs or others circumstances, and their primary focus for much of the story.
Throw in a few obstacles and get to know how your character will react when their achievement of this goal is put at risk. If it is really important to them, will they respond with anger? Despair? Will they keep trying or will they give up? It might be that your character wants to save the world from an alien attack, and they are furious at anyone who appears to step in their way. Or perhaps they want the freedom of a new adventure, but their life falls apart when they lose their passport and so spend the rest of the story trying to regain that freedom.
If you have a character who experiences a medical condition, it’s well worth researching the many different symptoms of it so that you can write about it accurately. Take anxiety, for instance. What does anxiety look like? It would be an injustice to your writing to simply state that your character has anxiety; opt to write well and show the reader instead. Describe an increased heart-rate, a dry mouth, the walls closing in, feeling trapped, feeling watched and other symptoms of anxiety that are different from one person to another. That demonstrates a real understanding of it and any reader who sees that in a character will instantly be able to relate to them.
I never used to be much of a planner but I have experienced the benefits of it in the last few years, and I urge you to incorporate it into your writing. I love to write on a whim but I know we give ourselves a huge head-start when we spend time thinking about our idea in-depth. It’s one thing to write for yourself and not be concerned about the readability, but writing for an audience commands you to write a consistent and believable piece (at least, if you want them to read and recommend your books).
Much of what you plan may never enter the book, it may even change while writing the book, but it is important because it gives you clarity when writing. You ease yourself of pressure when writing because you’ve already spent time exploring all details and possibilities. When you are writing about people, it helps to know the people you are writing about. Imagine writing about a character who is a bookworm in the first half of the book, but somewhere in the middle the audience learns they actually can’t read? That kind of inconsistency discredits your work and can be avoided by a little bit of planning beforehand.
This is not an exhaustive list but one that intends to prompt your thinking and inspire you to adopt the practice of approaching writing as a writer, not just someone who is interested in writing.
Still looking for more? Listen to my this Episode 14 of my podcast where I discuss it further.
I’d love to know if you’re able to use this to create your characters, please come back and tell me all about it in the comments below.
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