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How to write believable Characters, part of our How to Write series

Character Creation

by Jeff Heisler

Find links to more articles related to write creative fiction at the end of this article

Creating believable characters is an essential element of fiction. The story rest on your characters shoulders. If they don't hold up then your story collapses. So how do you make believable

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First recognize that different genres of fiction have different needs. A tightly plotted action or suspense thriller may not need characters fleshed out in detail as much as a literary novel. Also be aware that the more outlandish your plot is, the more important character believability becomes. Read any Steven King book and you'll see this. The reason he can take us on these journeys through strange and unusual events is his power to create realistic characters. When we believe the character, we believe what's happening to them.

The process of creating characters is so varied I suspect there are as many methods as there are authors. As always, take these tips as guidelines- not law. Every writer must do what works for him or her. These ideas will hopefully serve as a springboard to get you on your way.Here's how I create my characters:

* Step 1- Consider the story. In general the more my emphasis rest on the plot of the book, the more my characters need to serve that plot. If the story focus is more character based then my plot needs to serve the character.

If I need a character that will chase down a killer then I
better design someone who's able to do that. Everything from their build to their psychology must help them get to the killer. Now it's important not to make the character a perfect fit. No one is perfect, that's what makes life interesting. Your characters should have flaws that make it uncomfortable for them to reach their goal.
For example the character chasing the killer might have a wife and family that worry about his safety. This creates tension- tension
drives story.

When constructing a more literary work then the character
should be in mind already, and the plot forms around them. For
example- a coming of age story requires a young character who will
experience events that will shape their life. If you don't have
those elements you don't have a coming of age story- so your plot
must support your character.

* Step 2- Get to know your character. I like to use a form that
looks like an extensive dossier when I create my characters. For
supporting characters the dossier is smaller, but still quite
detailed. Design one for yourself and be sure to include details

The character's appearance.
Their habits and mannerisms.
Their motivations.
Their past.
How the character will change in the course of the story.

Don't make the mistake of assuming the bad guys don't need
as much character detail- they do, particularly in motivation. Sure
a story about a killer is suspenseful and scary, but if you have a
killer who murders because he sees his abusive father in every
victim, well- that's a little richer. Remember- the bad guys have
motivations that seem good to them. Hitler thought he was a nice guy-
your bad guy should too.

When you finish your dossier you may want to get creative
with it. I've spent time leafing through old magazines until I find
a picture of someone who reminds me of my character. I cut the
picture out and paste it to the dossier. Somehow this makes the
person seem real in my mind. I can think of them as a human rather
than a construction when I see an actual face.

* Step 3- Interview your character. Don't let your family see you do
this or they'll call the guys with the butterfly nets. You need to
sit down at the keyboard or with your notepad and interview these
characters. Ask them all kinds of questions about the story and
their lives. Why do you need to do this? Because it helps you iron
out the wrinkles in your character's construction. If you interview
your character and they reveal a motivation that just seems weak to
you- great. Now you have a chance to fix it before writing hundreds
of pages.

* Step 4- Introducing you character. When you finally sit down to
write you'll wonder how you go about introducing your character. A
few points to consider:

Introduce them at a moment of change in their lives. Don't show
how your character was born and raised in intricate detail- jump
into their lives at the moment something dramatic happens. Instead
of beginning your story "He was born at 2:34am in Lakeview
hospital," you can begin like this- "Marvin had never killed anyone
before. Looking down at the body at his feet he wondered if it would
be the last time." Whoa! Much more interesting, eh?

"Show, don't tell," still applies. Try to show your character's
nature rather than tell about it. The exception is minor characters.
You can use some short exposition to explain your minor characters
just to get them moving fast. You don't want to spend a large chunk
of text describing the Boy Scout who helps Granny walk across the
street- and your reader doesn't either. Just give enough information
about the kid to get Granny across the street- then go back to
Granny's life.

Some authors go for the bullet approach. Decide if it's right for
you. The bullet approach works like this- when a character is
introduced the story stops briefly and the author spends some time
writing expository information that gives the reader everything they
need to know about the character. This works for some writers- but I
don't recommend it. For one thing fiction has to be hyper-realistic.
In real life we don't get to know people all at once like that. It's
a gradual discovery. Consider your story and consider what other
authors in your genre are doing and decide for yourself.

That's the basic recipe for character creation. I hope it
helps you get your characters off the ground and running. Remember-
characters are the building blocks of story- don't forget to spend
time on them before you dive into your first draft. You'll be glad
you did.

Jeff Heisler is a freelance writer and editor of Write Away.
Read more of Jeff's writing articles at

What's the hottest Writing Inspiration book around?: Pocket Muse: Ideas and Inspirations for...                     

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