How to Make Your Characters Believable
by: Dermot Davis
If you don’t have believable characters, you don’t have a believable or engrossing story. I’ve seen many terrific stories not fully realized to their full potential because the characters were wooden, one-dimensional and ultimately not credible.
When I write unbelievable characters – and let’s face it, we all do from time to time – it is usually because I’m not sure about the character in the first place. If I’m fuzzy in my mind about my character, then that character cannot but be fuzzy on the page. My solution is to know the character – in my mind – as a fully realized human being, albeit one that exists in my mind only.
This is most difficult to do when creating a character from whole cloth. Creating a character means more than coming up with a name, an age, a gender and some work and personality tidbits: the character you conjure up should be as real as the other people that populate in your head, people from your so-called “real life.” Think of all the amazing characters from literature that have endured down through the years; some characters, we’re not even sure if they were real personages or not: Madame Bovary, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Jane Eyre, Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ebenezer Scrooge, Becky Sharp, James Bond and so on. Many of us know these characters so well that in any given situation, we could answer the question: what would my character do now? For instance, if the house was on fire and it was not sure if anyone was trapped in the house, what would James Bond do? What would Ebenezer Scrooge do? Or Rhett Butler? Who would dash back in, without thinking? Who would think before running back in? Who wouldn’t run back in, at all? Who would encourage someone else to run back in? Who would run in to check on people? Who would run in to check on valuables?
If you’re not sure what your character would do in eventualities such as this, then you don’t fully know your character and they are not going to be well represented on the page. One quick and surefire way of creating believable characters is to base them on someone you already know. It’s fairly safe to say that many of the above literary personages and others not mentioned were based on people or an amalgam of people that the author personally knew. It’s said that Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on a former professor of his; Ian Fleming based James Bond around his brother Peter and other spies like him that worked for the Navel Intelligence Division during the Second World War. Flaubert based Madame Bovary on a true personage from his village.
Usually when I base a character upon someone that I once knew, I will invariably remember them in a biased way that may not fully represent their full personality. For instance, I will remember a past school teacher of mine very differently than his work colleagues, his wife and indeed his children would remember him. Very often we naturally distort a particular memory of someone based on our evaluation of our experiences with that person; did I feel traumatized or joyful as a result of my exposure to them, for example.
Very often the character that ends up on the page bears no resemblance to the personage upon which they are based. What the exercise has done, however, is give us a template, so to speak, a character template upon which to build upon and give us a clear picture in our heads of how we think that person would react to other characters and other elements in the story.
All Daniel Waterstone ever wanted to do was write the great American novel and change the landscape of modern literature forever. He has two literary books in print but no one’s buying. His agent won’t even accept his latest masterpiece which he poured his soul into: apparently, it’s not commercial enough.
In a final act of desperation, under the pseudonym of Charles Spectrum, he writes a feverish satire on a Transformational, Self-help best-seller that’s currently topping the charts. Intended as a parody, “How to do Amazing Things Using Only Your Brain,” similar to the best-seller, contains crazy and hilarious exercises on how to increase one’s brain power.
Instead of being published as satire, however, it hits the shelves with all the other serious pop psychology, self-improvement books. It becomes a huge hit. People all around the world are doing unbelievably zany exercises to improve themselves. Even crazier still: they’re getting results. Readers are levitating, bending spoons and seeing into the future. Daniel becomes one of the most desired talk show guests and is soon lionized by agents and publicists. Seminars are organized and what was intended as a joke takes on a huge life of its own.
To complicate things further, Daniel falls in love with a beautiful woman who adores him as Charles Spectrum, the guru. If she was informed of his earlier incarnation as a penniless, failed author, would she still love him? Daniel knows that at some point he must choose between the celebrity author gravy train or, being true to his self and to his art, return to the pits of poverty, obscurity and perhaps, worst of all, most likely lose the woman of his dreams.
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Genre - Contemporary Fiction
Rating – PG13