Thursday, October 20, 2011

Believable Characters

Readers need to understand your characters and why they react the way they do. The difference between a good story and a great one is the result of careful weaving of characterization and style.

Most important is to create characters that are totally human, unpredictable and involved in the action of the plot. Authors Nan Leslie and Jack Smith wrote in a Writer’s magazine article that “You begin with the principal physical and psychological traits of your characters. A plethora of commonplace details is not the answer. This is mind-numbing to your audience, and readers will not relate on an emotional level to your characters. Once you have in mind a few recognizable traits, make your characters come alive by suggesting these traits or qualities. Avoid direct statement. Rather than explain everything about your character, use dramatic action to imply what you, as the author, already know to be true.”

In other words, a few character traits—three or four—are enough to make your reader identify with your protagonist. A laundry list of character flaws does not endear your reader to those who people your books. By capturing your protagonist’s emotional state, you not only hook the reader with the anger, jealousy, suspicion or other emotion, you enlist his or her empathy. In order to do this, you must place your characters in scenes that reveal their thoughts and goals. Portray your main character’s struggles to make the right decisions. The more he struggles, the more your reader becomes involved in the plot.

Make the reader worry about your character and plunge her progressively deeper into danger (or other problems). Hang her over a cliff and have the villain stomp on her fingers. If she falls, don’t have the hero rush to her rescue. Allow her to save herself, if at all possible. But don’t make her rescue improbable. The protagonist’s salvation must not only be clever but believable. Don’t use coincidence as a way to solve your story’s problem. Suspension of disbelief is what you’re aiming for as well as a satisfying ending.

Point of view and characterization must blend well together. Which of your characters is best suited to tell the story? Writing mainly from inside your characters’ heads—their thoughts, feelings and fears—seeing events through their eyes not only makes the story believable but pulls the reader into the plot. Multiple POVs can add depth to your story but head hopping within a scene can confuse the reader and disengage him from the action. Keep him in focus as though viewing the scene through a movie camera.

Surprise your reader at every turn. If she guesses the outcome of a scene, you haven’t done your job well. Strive to not only produce unique characters but to find a better way of saying things. Never rely on time-worn phrases or portray your characters as blatant stereotypes or cardboard cutouts. And be sure to invent unusual circumstances in which to place your characters.


  1. You hit the nail on the head when you said a character must be actively "involved in the action of the plot". Doing nothing only works on Seinfeld.

    Great post. Thanks, Jean!

  2. Thanks, Anne. I like your quote: "Doing nothing only works on Seinfeld." :)

  3. Great post! I love the believable part; deus ex machina rarely works.

  4. Very true, Angel. Thanks! I'm glad you stopped by.