How to Create Believable Characters
Creating complex, well-rounded characters requires time thinking about how your characters look, where they're from, and what motivates them, among many other things. A good way to help bring your characters to life and to establish a back story for them is to develop answers to a set of questions about them.
While much of the information you develop for your characters during the process will never be shared directly with readers, it will help you to understand the character better and more realistically portray how they will react to situations and other characters in your story. The more you know about your characters, the more realistic your story will be.
Where Does Your Character Live?
Novelist and writing professor Michael Adams ("Anniversaries in the Blood") has said he believes the setting is the most important element of any story. It's definitely true that character, if not story, in many ways grows out of a sense of place. What country does your character live in? What region? Does he live alone or with a family? In a trailer park or an estate? How did he end up living there? How does he feel about it?
Knowing where your character lives can help you to understand how he might respond to certain people or situations.
Where Is Your Character From?
In a similar vein, where did your character's life begin? Did she grow up running around the woods in a small southern town, or did she learn to conjugate Latin verbs in a London boarding school? Obviously, this influences things like the kinds of people your character knows, the words she uses to communicate, and the way she feels about a host of things in her external world.
How Old Is Your Character?
Though this might seem like an obvious question, it's important to make a clear decision about this before you begin writing. Otherwise, it's impossible to get the details right. For instance, would your character have a cell phone, a landline, or both? Does your character drink martinis or cheap beer? Does he still get money from his parents, or worry about what will happen to his parents as they get old?
What Is Your Character Called?
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? According to novelist Elinor Lipman, absolutely not: "Names have subtext and identity. If your main characters are Kaplans, you've got yourself a Jewish novel, and if your hero is Smedley Winthrop III, you've given him a trust fund. Nomenclature done right contributes to characterization." Your character's name provides a lot of information about ethnicity, age, background, and social class.
What Does Your Character Look Like?
Is your character tall enough to see over the heads of a crowd at a bar or to notice the dust on the top of a refrigerator? Does she deal with weight issues and avoid looking at herself in the mirror? Though you need not have a crystal clear picture of your character in mind, physical details help you imagine how your character moves through the world, and this, in turn, helps your readers believe in the character.
What Kind of Childhood Did Your Character Have?
As with real people, many things about your character's personality will be determined by his background. Did his parents have a good marriage? Was he raised by a single mom? How your character interacts with other people—whether he's defensive or confident, stable or rootless—may be influenced by his past.
What Does Your Character Do for a Living?
As with all of these questions, how much information you need depends in some part on the plot, but you'll need some idea of how your character makes money. A dancer will look at the world very differently from an accountant, for instance, and a construction worker will use very different language from either one. How they feel about a host of issues, from money to family, will be in some part dependent on their career choices.
How Does Your Character Deal with Conflict and Change?
Fiction involves some element of conflict and change. They're part of what makes a story a story. Is your character passive or active? If someone confronts her, does she change the subject, head for the minibar, stalk off, or do a deep-breathing exercise? When someone insults her, is she more likely to take it, come up with a retort, or excuse herself to find someone else to talk to?
Who Else Is in Your Character's Life?
Relationships and how people interact with others reveals character. They're also excuses for dialogue, which break up exposition, offering another way of providing the necessary information. Think about who will best help you convey this information and what kinds of people would realistically be in your character's world in the first place.
What Is Your Character's Goal or Motivation in This Story or Scene?
In longer stories or novels, you will have to ask this question repeatedly. Many of your character's actions will result from the intersection of what he's trying to achieve and his personality, which is composed of everything you've invented in answering questions about him. When in doubt about how your character should behave, ask yourself what your character wants from the situation and think about the answers you've given to all of the questions.