For fiction writers, one of our greatest challenges is creating believable characters. Characters are just as important, or maybe more important than the story itself. If we don’t create characters the reader identifies with, can see as real, and care about, they really won’t care about the story. A well-developed character is a believable character.
I would venture to say that the characters in the Harry Potter series were certainly believable. We believed because with her vivid imagination, J.K. Rowling created characters who were distinct and different, but consistent with the wonderful world she created at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
So what are the 3 simple steps for creating believable characters?
1. Create Original and Memorable Characters
Our protagonist is our most important character. As he moves about in our story, we should allow the reader to get to know him. We don’t have to provide a detailed description up front about what the character looks like, only a few details need to be mentioned. This allows the reader to imagine what the character looks like and develop a connection with him.
Early on, however, there should be something distinct and memorable mentioned about the character — a distinctive mannerism, some unique body language or gesture, a certain flaw or distinguishing marker to create in the reader’s mind a vivid image. Additional attributes about the character can be layered as the story unfolds.
As writers, we should know in great detail everything about the characters, especially our protagonist — height, weight, birth date, eye color, educational background, religion, where they grew up, childhood tragedies or struggles, ethnicity — many of these attributes will determine the way the character speaks, how he views socio-economic or political issues, his attitude about life in general, and how he makes decisions.
The way a character dresses tells us something about who she is. How she deals with conflict offers another insight. Is she judgmental? Surly or sarcastic? Does she swear? Is she timid? What are her fears? What is it she wants or desires? What is it she ultimately wants to achieve? What is her motivation?
We all want to read about a protagonist who is smart, capable, and strong. That’s why we love super heroes! But we want our protagonist to also appear human and humans have flaws. No reader wants to read about a Pollyanna, a goody-two shoe. This becomes trite and boring real fast. Our characters, especially our protagonist should have flaws or maybe even a dark side. This makes them more believable, relatable, and in some instances even sympathetic. Our heroes should not be all good and our bad guy should not be all bad.
I believe TV audiences are drawn to How to Get Away With Murder because of the story and the protagonist. Annalise Keating, is an attorney played brilliantly by Viola Davis. Driven and flawed with demons from her past, there is no trick too dirty for Annalise to use to win. And she does win!
2. Give Characters a Distinctive Voice
Internal and external dialogue reveal a lot about our characters. External dialogue reveals who a character is — if it’s done right. And we should not miss the opportunity early in our story to establish this.
Take for example, Deputy Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, played magnificently by Tommy Lee Jones. We see Deputy Gerard for the first time at the aftermath of a trail derailment in which Dr. Richard Kimble, convicted of murdering his wife, has escaped. Gerard’s response to the train conductor’s ambivalent statement that none of the prisoners survived the wreck was quite telling.
Holding up massive chains he says, “Oh wow, gee-wiz, look-a-here — we’re always fascinated when we find leg irons with no legs in it.”
We knew right away that Gerard was a silver-tongued devil. But when he went on to state with expert precision the distance Dr. Richard Kimble would have traveled based upon foot speed, factored by the time of his escape, and the condition of the terrain, we knew something else. This Gerard was one smart puppy!
Dialogue between characters tells us a lot about who the characters are by what they say about other characters. Each character should have a distinctive voice, how they turn a phrase, whether they use proper English, slang or colloquialisms, whether they have a southern drawl or a Boston dialect. For a teenage girl, does she use quirky expressions suitable for her age? Or does the alien speak some inter-galactic babble because it’s from the planet Zzycron5? The language and the way characters speak must be consistent with their back story and the world we’ve created. If it lacks verisimilitude, we’ve missed the mark, and the characters won’t be believable.
Internal dialogue can reveal a lot about what the character thinks about life, about the situation he’s in, and about other people. It tells the reader what kind of person the character is. It can show his inner conflicts and struggles, and reveal his demons. When we go into a character’s thoughts as a writer, we deepen him, and he becomes more real to the reader.
3. Show Character Development
We should see growth in our characters. They should discover new things about themselves as they face conflicts and challenges.
Some writing experts call character development, the character arc, or the 4th dimension in character development. Our characters may start out one way in the beginning of our story, he may drink heavily, for example, because he felt responsible for the death of one of his children. But in a dramatic rescue he’s able to save another child toward the end of the story. This brings redemption and through the process he forgives himself and no longer needs to self-medicate with alcohol.
One of my favorite movies that depicts character growth is Pretty Woman. At the start of the movie, Edward Lewis played by Richard Gere is a heartless corporate raider. Edward meets Vivian, a beautiful, smart, naive prostitute new in the business played by Julia Roberts. After spending a week with her, escorting her to high-class social and sporting events, the two fall in love. At the end of the story they are both transformed. Edward’s heart has soften toward his ruthless business dealings, and Vivian finds that she’s better than being a Hollywood Boulevard prostitute and decides to go college instead. Both experienced the character arc.
Developing believable characters may require studying everyday people around us, their gestures and movement, facial expressions, and the way they express themselves in every day conversations.
More detailed research may be required if you write historical fiction or stories involving time travel, as examples. For these stories, it is critical to capture the correct speech, mores, dialects, traditions, dress, etc., for your characters. If research is not done meticulously, readers will take great pleasure in pointing out inaccuracies. And what’s more important, the story and the characters lose believability.
As always, thanks for stopping by! Drop me a line and let me know your favorite believable fictional character in a movie or book.