Writing Believable, Credible Characters – notes from various panels/lectures

Continuing on with my summary of the things learned from various Conflux panels, this entry is influenced by notes taken during a masterclass held by the highly successful Karen Miller (http://www.karenmiller.net/), as well as notes taken during story-writing sessions held by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG), in particular, fellow Writer’s of the Future winner, Ian McHugh, who is a font of writerly knowledge and most generous fellow to boot (http://ianmchugh.wordpress.com/).

Given a post on character has the potential to be enormous, I have broken it up into a number of smaller posts, which I’ll put up over the coming days. Note – I have used the term “he” as short-hand when discussing character, but do not intend it to mean ‘male-only’ characters.

Characters are not ‘real people’, but heightened versions of ‘real people’. As such, they need to be a little gooder-than-good or a little badder-than-bad to inhabit the larger-than-life world you’ve created for them, whilst at the same time still remaining believable and credible to the reader.

How do you make them believable and credible?

You start by knowing them intimately. Before you’ve even written a word of your story, you should have figured out who your characters are. What is their background? What do they want? What’s their goals? How do they think? How do they speak?

And then, you make them consistent. This does not mean that a character cannot change, but if he does, then there needs to be a good reason for this change or growth. You’ve often heard readers gripe that a character they love, “would never act like that,” because the character is suddenly ruthless for no reason or mushy for no reason and so on. This happens when the writer does not know them well enough.

What they say and also ‘how’ they say it:

Once you know the character, the sorts of things your character will say and thus the dialogue will automatically begin to alter and tailor itself to each specific character. A character that is very pedantic or intelligent will probably make use of a greater, more-precise vocabulary than one who is less educated or picky about his words.

Does your character swear a lot? Does he blaspheme? Is he abrupt? Is he long-winded? Does he apologise his way through life? What is the character’s vocabulary, speech cadence?

If he was in a restaurant, would he be the one snapping his fingers and demanding immediate service or would he wait until he was noticed? Would he order based on price? Would he buy for everyone on the table? Would he ask about every item on the menu and what would he want to know? Would he be interested in country-of-origin or would he be more concerned about whether the eggs were free-range or the vegetables organic?

Do men and women and transgenders speak differently in your world (consider Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” where the alien ‘piggies’ have women’s language and men’s language)?

Children generally speak differently to adults and they also speak and think about different things to adults. How differently do the children of your world speak? Has there been a generational shift so that older generations who have perhaps known war and starvation speak of safety and squirreling away savings and mistrust of others when their children, who have known only plenty and integration, do not?

Does your character even speak? Does he even have a tongue to speak (this may be vital consideration in an alien or animal race) or does he communicate another way? Telepathically, perhaps? By clicking his fingers, drawing, morse-code …

Does your character come from a different culture so that he speaks not only with a mishmash of terms, but comes to the table with a mishmash of ideas from both cultures? For example, first generation migrants whose parents come from another country frequently carry hybrid ideas from both the parents’ culture and the culture they have grown up in.

Does speech reflect class or education-level in your world? Could a character be ‘labelled’ as being from a certain area or social strata the second he opens his mouth and what would this mean to your story or the drama of a situation. Are certain classes frowned upon, elevated, dismissed completely, thought backward or stupid?

What they think (including internal dialogue):

Thoughts can often mirror the character’s speech, but sometimes thoughts can run counter to what the character is saying and this too reveals something about what is going on in the world at large and about the character himself. It reveals that the character is capable of deception and/or that the situation requires it. Perhaps it reveals something about another character that this one feels a need to guard his thoughts. Perhaps the other character is very dangerous or untrustworthy or easily-hurt or the character having the thoughts is naturally polite or cautious. An example of an unfettered, unaware character who voices all her thoughts, regardless of the hurt caused, is the girl, Charyn, in “Quintana of Charyn” – so much so that it is a habit frequently addressed by other characters in the story (which says something about the culture at large and what is acceptable). Is your character more apt to voice his thoughts when he is tired, grumpy, drunk or drugged?

Are the character’s thinking processes, obsessions or anxieties (internal dialogue) so rampant and overpowering (like a madness) that they actually stop the character functioning or remembering things?  Is your character mentally stable?

Is your character self-aware? What are his opinions of himself? Is he ever-mindful of how he is being perceived (which will affect how he dresses, acts and speaks) or is he oblivious or unconcerned by the way others regard him?

If he sees a problem, does he get involved? Does he always have an opinion? Does he attempt to right wrongs?

Is your character rash? Prone to action without thinking?

Do the thoughts of the character mirror the actions of that same character? For example, a character might think/believe he keeps to himself, when in fact he inserts himself into everything going on around him. In such a case, his self-view is deluded. Does the character believe that something in society needs to change, but is too lazy/fearful to enact the change he wants? Conflict happens when such a character then gets thrown in the deep end and forced to be the power for change (e.g. Frodo, who would prefer to stay in his comfortable home, being tasked with the job of destroying the one ring).

What’s their belief system? Do they have Gods? Do they believe in spirits? Is religion and so on important to them or do they simply give their Gods lip-service to impress/placate their societal circle, culture, parents, spouse? Does a character have to take up a faith or lose one to be married?

What are the beliefs imposed on him by his culture or family growing up. Children in particular can become very entrenched in beliefs and prejudices instilled in them by their parents. Conflict occurs when that child grows up and enters the real world only to find his ‘inner truths’ run counter to what is acceptable in society. Growth (good or bad) occurs in the character if he decides he needs to change to fit the societal norm, however, this might also increase conflict with the family. A good example of this is the character, Boyd Crowder, in season 1 of “Justified.” Having experienced what he sees as a ‘religious correction’ (he gets shot while committing a crime), he becomes a Christian vigilante against the criminal activities of his own father and family, in a culture where loyalty to family and kin are everything and retribution is often savage.

Are a character’s thoughts and motives ones the human sensibility – what we would consider common-decency – can understand? Alien races and animals may well think and logic much differently to humans and the author has to be aware of this if he wants to avoid writing ‘forehead aliens’.

What do they want?

When a character in a story wants something he must want it big-time. It must be important to them. He must be willing to crawl over burning coals to get it. This could be anything – an object (e.g. the character is on a quest), a mission, an ideal, a way of living, freedom, the overthrow of a tyrant, revenge. How badly they want something and how far they will go will also be determined by their personality, their past and also by their culture. For example, a young man trying to prove himself in mafia, gang or samurai culture may have immense pride and reputation staked in getting revenge and so pursue it harder.

What do they need?

Again, it must be an essential need. You want cake but you need vegetables.

When wants and needs differ from one another, this can create conflict in the character’s mind. It can also force the character to come up with unique solutions for achieving both.

What would your character do or not do?

Thinking about wants and needs, what would your character do to get them? What would he never do? Perhaps your character cannot kill? Perhaps he can’t lie? Perhaps he cannot set aside pride? Perhaps he can’t get dirty. Perhaps he won’t beg or debase himself.

Is he devious? Would he pursue a need front on or would he come at a problem from the side? Would he insinuate and ingratiate his way to what he desired or needed, currying favours and debts along the way? This difference in approach can be seen comparing Ned Stark and Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones. The former is direct and honour-bound, but, unfortunately for him, not living in a kingdom where such virtues win many friends. Some characters – usually the intelligent ones – can play at both, choosing whether it is safe to be direct or whether subtlety is needed depending on the situation. Tyrion Lannister has this ability. Is your character one who gets his payback up front or will he remember a slight and save his vengeance for a later time?

What do others say/think about them?

Other characters will comment on this character or perhaps act in certain ways around him. Some of this will depend on what the relationship between the characters is (an oppressed villager is unlikely to admire a ruthless king, but his knights and queen may well adore him), but it will also reveal something about him too.

If people need to skulk around him and whisper about him quietly in corners, then the reader will get the feeling he is ruthless and possibly of unpredictable temperament. If, however, others can speak to him and even criticise him loudly and directly, this might imply he is even-tempered and fair, but it could also suggest he is weak and a bit of a push-over.

Is the character safe for others to give praise to? The character might be one of the ‘good rebels’ fighting an oppressive regime (maybe he is secretly plotting an overthrow of the regime), but the oppressed citizens cannot be seen to openly praise his goodness or mercy for fear of him being assassinated.

Is a character ‘able’ to be mentioned at all by name? Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series was known as “he who cannot be named” for good reason. In some cultures, the dead may not be able to be named or certain prophets and Gods.

What can hurt your character?

This ties in with wants and needs and the character’s self-image. There are loads of ways to hurt a character by depriving him of his wants or needs or reputation or making him question his values and who he is or making him go against his core beliefs. Hurt can also be physical – injury, blindness, crippling.

For example – if your character needs his lover to be complete, he will be badly hurt if she dies or leaves him or leaves his love unrequited. A character might be hurt if he prides himself on his honour, truth and steadfastness and discovers that everyone else thinks him untrustworthy.

What has he got to lose?

This can be an object, wealth, land, country, a person, family-member, child, lover, the character’s own life, his freedom, but it can also be such things as mental stability (his mind), intellect, reputation, God, status and friendship.

Does the character change through the story?

Does the character start off speaking and acting in one way and then change through the course of the story to be another way entirely? Or does the main character stay the same while everyone around him changes? It could well end up that this character’s steadfastness in the face of turmoil and change is what holds everyone and everything together or it could well be that this character’s inflexibility and inability to change is what drives everyone else away. How resistant is the character to change?

Next post will be – Influences on character.


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