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Creating Believable Characters
In order to create believable characters, your characters need to be complex, emotional beings. They need to show their emotions, suppress their emotions, be conflicted by their emotions, and paralyzed by them. They can easily do one or more of these during any scene in your story. Emotion will drive their behavior and their behavior drives the plot of the story.
Emotion derives from two main concepts: motivation and backstory. Your character’s emotions depend on what he desires right now and his background.
Your protagonist’s personality is a direct result of every single thing that has happened to her since birth. The reader doesn’t want to or need to know all these details, so you must pick and chose which events are important to show the reader so they can understand your character. You, however, need to know your character’s backstory to have insight into their personality.
The major problem with backstory is it’s in the past and lacks immediacy. It will interrupt the flow of the current story like a TV commercial. Done well, you can ease the transition into backstory without losing your reader.
Backstory can be inserted into your story in four ways:
- Brief detail – My personal favorite. It can be included into an on-going scene without stopping the story action. Setting details like a hand-carved statue can be used or a casual reference to a prior event can work.
- Here’s an example from my book, Magic Study: “She was right, of course. I had used the trees to hide from my enemies in Ixia without the convenience of a ladder.” This excerpt tells the reader Yelena had enemies when she lived in Ixia.
- Inserted paragraph - This technique uses an entire paragraph to explain an important backstory event. Readers won’t feel as jolted out of the story with a brief glimpse of the character’s past. Make sure it is relevant to the current action.
- Another example from Magic Study begins with the Zaltana clan lowering a rope ladder for Yelena and her companions to climb up to their homestead built in the tree canopy. Two of her companions tuck the hems of their dresses into their belts before Yelena helps them climb the ladder.
- The action triggers a memory and the next paragraph reads, “When we had crossed the border into Sitia, the girls hadn’t hesitated to exchange their northern uniforms for the bright multi-colored, cotton dresses worn by some of the southern women. The boys switched their uniforms for simple cotton pants and tunics. I, on the other hand, had kept my food taster’s uniform on until the heat and humidity had driven me to purchase a pair of boy’s cotton pants and a shirt.” The story then continues in “real” time with Yelena’s turn to climb the ladder.
- From that one paragraph the reader learns Yelena had to wear a uniform in Ixia, and that she was a food taster.
- Flashback – This technique is used frequently in fiction. Instead of telling the readers about a past incident, the incident is shown in a scene with dialogue, action, internal thoughts and exposition. If the backstory is important enough to be shown through a flashback, there must be a reason to show this event. Also the placement of the flashback is important. You need to establish the current story line and have enough interesting events happen to your protagonist before using a flashback. Avoid using a flashback for your opening scene.
- Expository lump – Notice the word “lump,” because that’s how a chunk of backstory presented as exposition will feel to the story’s flow. It stops the action dead. It will jerk your reader right out of the current story line, and they might not want to go back. Avoid unless it’s really funny or full of exciting events.
The key to character is Motivation!
All your characters want something. There will be no story without it. Occasionally the protagonist doesn’t know what he wants, but the reader does. Without motivation there is no conflict, because usually when a character wants something, there is an antagonist trying to prevent him from achieving his desires. Example: A police detective wants to find the killer. The killer doesn’t want to get caught. The interactions between these two desires results in conflict.
Making a list of each character’s wants can help when plotting a story. For each major desire there should be an obstacle to overcome. The progression of the character as he struggles to overcome each obstacle until he reaches his ultimate goal (climax) is the story’s structure.
Some wants are obvious and don’t require much backstory to explain it to the reader. However, other desires are not so obvious and need backstory to explain to the reader why.
Desire creates emotion.
The wanting is always accompanied by feelings – otherwise if your character doesn’t care if he solves the crime or not – the reader won’t either. With the detective example – he not only wants to do his job, but he wants to stop a killer from killing another. Emotions of the detective will be, fear, frustration, a sense of urgency, as well as good emotions like happy and excited when clues start making sense.
Sometimes characters will be feeling one emotion, but physically display another. The detective may be impatient for information from a witness, but she’s skittish and he has to show her a calm and helpful demeanor despite his racing pulse.
Portraying these emotions to the reader is one of the hardest aspects of writing. It is so easy to write, “He was angry,” which is telling the reader about the emotion. Much better to write, “He shredded the photograph into tiny pieces,” which shows the reader the emotion.
There are four ways to portray character emotions:
- Actions –You know the cliché – actions speak louder than words. In order to show emotions you can have your character do something to express her feelings.
- Example from my book, Poison Study: “Valek snatched a gray rock from his desk and hurled it toward me.” (Valek was angry). Another example: “My chest felt tight. I was having trouble drawing in air.” (Yelena was afraid).
- Dialogue – Instead of talking about feelings (he was upset), characters can say what an upset person would say.
- In this example from my book Magic Study, Yelena is talking with her brother Leif:
- “Do you think I’m lying?” The words hissed from between my teeth.
“No. I think you’re suspicious of everything and everyone, just like a northerner.” His mouth twisted as if he wanted to spit.
“You think I’m a spy,” I snapped at him in frustration. “I’ll lower my defenses. Send your mind out and see for yourself that I’m not here to spy on Sitia.”
“I can’t read minds. In fact, no Zaltana can.”
I ignored the jab. “Can’t you at least sense who I am?”
“Physically you’re a Zaltana. But just because Irys claims you survived Mogkan’s efforts to wipe your mind doesn’t mean it’s true.” Leif pointed an accusing finger at me. “You could be a pawn, an empty vessel that has been provided with a northern host. What better way to have eyes and ears in the south?”
“No. It’s not. You’ve revealed yourself,” Leif said with a quiet intensity. Then his eyes dulled and turned vacant as if he peered into another world. “I taste strong loyalty and longing for Ixia emanating from you. You stink of blood and pain and death. Anger and passion and fire buzz around you like a haze.” His gaze refocused on me. “My sister would be reveling in her freedom, and wrapped with hatred for her captors. You have lost your soul to the north. You are not my sister. It would have been better if you had died than return to us tainted.”
- The passage is more interesting to read than if I had stated outright that Leif and Yelena are arguing about her loyalties.
- Bodily sensations – Physical reactions do accompany emotions, and these can be used to portray emotions. Avoid the clichés – heart pounding, blood chilling, stomach clenching, lump in throat, eyes widening etc… Yes all these physical reactions do happen when you’re upset and scared, but the expressions have been over used to a point where they’re clichés. Try and find something fresh and unique.
- An example from Magic Study: “My breath locked as cold fear splashed through me. I realized I had made a grave mistake.”
- Character’s internal thoughts – What your character is thinking can let the reader know exactly how they feel. Again avoid telling sentences like, “I was frustrated,” and show, “I wanted to wrap my hands around Mr. I-know-Everything’s fat neck and shake some sense into him.”
By knowing your character’s backstory and desires, and by expressing their complex emotions to your readers, you can create wonderfully rich and fully-developed characters. Characters your readers will believe in and won’t soon forget.