Today’s topic is creating believable characters. There is nothing that I hate more than starting a really promising book only to find out that its characters are flat, their actions are inconsistent and their motivations are weak or illogical.
There are only so many different stories we can tell (if you have never visited Tv Tropes, then you should). What makes a story different, interesting, and engaging is its characters. You could have the best plot in the world, but if no one likes your characters (or even worse, doesn’t find them believable) then your readers are not going to stick around and finish your book.
Creating believable characters may sound challenging, but with a little guidance and practice I’m sure you can do it. Here are a few tips that I have picked up over the years that I hope you find helpful:
Determine Your Character’s Motivations.
Why is your character doing what he/she/they is doing? No one does something without a reason, and though your character’s motivations may change over the course of your story you still need to identify what they are in the first place. Is your character motivated by greed? by a sense of justice? by revenge? Before you start writing sit down and figure out what motivates each of your major characters and how these different motivations may cause conflict between various individuals. Say you have a group of people setting out on a quest for treasure. One character, the sneaky Rogue, is going on the adventure so that he can get his hands on some sweet sweet loot. The Paladin, an irritatingly self righteous and devout individual, is going on the same quest, but he hopes to uncover a precious religious artifact and return it to his church. This will earn him not only the praise of his peers but also potentially allow him to curry favour with the god he worships. The Wizard, a crotchety and intelligent old man, decides to go on the quest in order to expand his knowledge. He hopes that the treasure will include some priceless ancient tomes.
Now, what happens when all three characters discover the treasure: An ancient magical tome of immense religious value that is worth a fortune. All three characters are driven by different motivations, so they will undoubtably clash over what should be done with the book. The Rogue will want to sell it to the highest bidder and then go live a life of leisure on his share of the money. The Paladin will wish to return it to his church, where it can be safely stored. The Wizard will wish to study it, learning its secrets. Each embarked on the quest for a different reason, and while they may have been able to get along up until this point that tenuous alliance has now crumbled, creating conflict.
Keep Your Characters Consistant
I love Indiana Jones as much as any woman, but one thing has always bothered me. I’ve heard it called “The Marion Effect” and it is true for both the character of Marion Ravenwood (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Willie Scott (The Temple of Doom). Both characters start out as strong, independent and self-reliant. Marion holds her own when the Nazis attack the bar she and Indie are in, and Willie holds her own when she and Indie are attacked by criminals in the Shanghai nightclub where she works. However, shortly after Indie shows up both women crumple into crying useless balls who need to be rescued constantly. Willie spends most of the movie being spoilt, rude and fragile.
Do not do this to your characters.
If your suddenly strong character becomes weak you need to have a reason. Is your strapping hero secretly afraid of snakes? Does your selfish main character gain some empathy? Something needs to happen, whether on the page or in the background, to change your character’s personality or motivations.
For example, let’s go back to our trio of adventurers. Perhaps the Rogue has learned that friendship is more valuable than money, so he decides that the tome should not be sold after all. Perhaps the Paladin suffers a crisis of faith and learns that the god, or the god’s church, are not a force of good and plan to use the tome for something awful. So he decides that he cannot allow the tome to fall into their hands. Or maybe the Wizard, upon a cursory glance over the tome, realizes the spells contained within the book are dangerous and that no one should have that knowledge. If two characters change their views to align with the third character than the trio avoids conflict and everyone goes home happy. However, if all three change their motivations they may have to then decide what to do with the tome. Do they leave it where they found it and reset all the traps on their way out? Do they destroy it once and for all? Do they decide to form a protective order and keep watch over the tome? The possibilities are endless, but the story, the conflict and the harmony only make sense if we look at the different character’s motivations and keep their motivations consistent.
How Would My Character React To This?
Asking yourself what your character would do in a given situation is an excellent way to discover their motivations, personality and values. In a previous post, we discussed how to develop your characters through vignettes. While any old situation can work I find the best are ones that were pivotal to your character’s development. Think back on your own life. What memories stick out to you the most? Which events helped make you who you are today?
Perhaps for the Paladin in our previous example, we could go back to the day he decided to become a paladin and serve a particular god. Why did he cchooseto do this? Why this god and not another? What sacrifices did he need to make in order to become a paladin? Did he have to turn his back on the woman he loved and take a vow of celibacy? If his parents worshiped a different god then how did his relationship with them change because of his decision? What did he seek to gain from joining the Paladins? Did he crave companionship? Glory? Justice?
How about the Rogue? Was he born into a life of crime or did he chose it? If he chose it, how much of a choice was it really? What was his childhood like? Perhaps we learn that he is an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock to a poor woman. When his mother dies he is forced into a life of crime in order to avoid starving. As he grows older he joins a group of other rogues and thieves, hoping to fill the void of loneliness in his heart. However, he never finds true companionship until he meets the Paladin and the Wizard. When it comes time to decide what to do with the tome he decides that their friendship is more important than any treasure, so he abandons his original plan which was to either convince the other two that the book should be sold or wait for them to fall asleep and steal it for himself.
Creating believable, relatable and engaging characters is the factor that drives your story. Your story is to a car like believable characters are to the gas. Without believable characters your story isn’t going anywhere.