Creating Believable Fictional Characters

Creating believable fictional characters is detrimental to creating a successful story. In truth, without a character that comes alive in the reader’s mind, you will find that your entire narrative may fall flat.

Have you ever read a piece of fiction where the characters seemed two dimensional? Perhaps the protagonist seems like a cliché, perhaps the conversations seem stilted, the decisions made by the characters are predictable, the plot itself is boring or the description of the character is done is such a way that you feel as if you were dealing with paper dolls and not living, breathing characters.

By learning to create believable people for your stories; believable people with believable personalities and voices, you can literally make your work come alive.

Below you will find some techniques to help you in creating believable characters. Each of these can be expounded upon in far more depth, but for now, consider this an overview of how to create story people who come alive in the mind of the reader.

Character Description

Chances are, you know what you want your character to look like; tall, short, petite, full-figured, stocky, specific hair and eye colors, skin textures, the works. In fact, the overall description of your characters may be a very important part of your story, but the way that you convey this to the reader is even more important.

Knowing what a character looks like, in detail, is important for you, the writer. But in story crafting it is better to let the reader create the full image of the character in their minds.

One of the biggest mistakes in story writing is to create a scene where the character is described in detail. Usually this is done as the person is introduced, or views themselves in a mirror, or is observed in detail by someone else. These approaches are predictable and often-times wordy to the point of ridiculousness (who considers their own lips to be “full and luscious” when looking in the mirror, or, upon meeting a new acquaintance, goes into raptures about their muscular body and likens their hair to the color of wheat?) Quite frankly, short of a classic romance, where the description is part of the appeal, this kind of description can be a put off to the reader.

It is better to let the reader create the full image of the character in their own head. Of course, you don’t want them to get entirely the wrong idea about a person, which is why referencing their description in more subtle ways can convey your view of the character without forcing the full description of them on the reader against their will. The best way to do this is in working bits of their description into the narrative. Instead of saying a character is short, you could say something like “Joan was startled to find that when she was toe to toe with Frank the top of his head came to her chin.” Indeed, by working in references like this throughout the story, you guide the reader to your view of the character without making them feel as if you are forcing the issue.

Create a Back Story

In order to write a good character, you have to not just know what your character looks and sounds like, how they dress and what they like to eat, you need to know why they do those things. The best way to do this is to create a back story.

A back story is the history of the character. While aspects of the back story may be mentioned or referred to in the narrative, it will usually not play a big part in the actual telling of the story. Its purpose is to flesh out your own personal understanding of the persona you have created and help you to make them relatable and find their unique voice.

A back story helps you to discover how they became who they are, why they do what they do. It explains what events impacted them and turned them into who they are today. This doesn’t have to be a book-length endeavor, just a paragraph or two can do wonders in helping you to understand who your character is and how they became that way.

Make Them Relatable

One of the most common mistakes in creating story people is to make them unrelatable. If your readers can not relate to the characters in your story, if they cannot see a bit of themselves in one or more of your characters, the chances are that they will lose interest in the story altogether.

One of the best ways to make a fictional person relatable is to give them a human failing, a fault or characteristic which, when it presents itself, makes people say to themselves, “ha! I know exactly how that feels!” Think of a private detective who has a problem with body image, or a clumsy personal assistant, a psychiatrist who has anxiety, or a music aficionado who can’t carry a tune in a handbasket.

 We are all human, making your characters human can go a long way towards endearing them to your readers.

Give Them a Voice

If you are an avid fiction reader, you will understand what I am referring to when I say that the way an actor verbalizes and brings to life a fictional character can make or break a movie that is based on a book. If the actor, producer and screen writers are worth their salt, the movie version of a well-loved book character will bring the written character to life on the big screen. If not done correctly, it can leave you feeling seriously disappointed, for the character that seemed to live and breathe on the page falls flat on the screen.

Giving your characters a unique voice of their own is one of the most important parts of creating a believable persona for your story. A living, breathing voice can make the difference between an “okay” and an “amazing” narrative.

Character voice can be defined as a fictional character’s unique way of expressing themselves both inwardly and outwardly. The voice is told through the character’s personality, their thoughts, their process of reasoning and evaluation, even the way they talk and the kinds of choices that they make.  

One of the best ways to create a truly unique voice is to ‘listen’ to your character as if they were a real person. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and close your eyes; imagine that the character as you see them based on their description and back story is sitting across from you. Now, ask them questions about their life, their needs and desires, friends, hobbies, anything. Write down the question and wait for them to answer, then write down the answer as you “hear” it in your head. Soon you will start to get a feel for your character’s unique voice.

Once you have the voice for your various characters, you will find that writing dialogue between them becomes easier and their decisions and actions within the story line become far easier to write. In fact, there may come a point where the characters become so well developed that they begin taking on a life all of their own.

But that is a topic for another day.

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