Sunday, September 22, 2013

Guest Post - What Makes Characters Believable by Amanda O'Dell

To me, there is no element more vital to the making of a good story than believable characters. As a reader, I may pick up a book because I’m intrigued by the premise of the plot, but what keeps me turning the pages is how well the author portrays their characters. In my genre, fantasy, this is especially important because readers are already being asked suspend their disbelief in the setting and/or the circumstances of the plot. A fantasy writer needs believable characters to help ground everything, to make the fantastic as real and accessible as a story that utilizes surroundings and circumstances more closely aligned with our everyday existence. When I read, I need to be able to relate to the characters I’m reading about; I don’t need to love them, or even like them necessarily, but I need to care about what happens to them, or else I’m going not going to bother finishing the book.

At this point, many of you writers out there reading this right now are probably rolling your eyes, going, well, YEAH. I know that. Everyone knows that. Which is good, you should already know how important your characters are, otherwise, why else would you be writing about them, right? They are already important to you, the trick is making them as important to other people who do not have the benefit of knowing them the way you do.

The key to writing believable characters is to start with an element of yourself. This rule applies for every single character. They might have all of two lines of dialogue in your book, or maybe even none at all, but you must inject them with some kind of personality or you’re going to wind up with a bunch of cardboard cutouts that distract from the characters you have invested some personality in. So pick something about yourself. Doesn’t matter what it is: it can be a flaw or a virtue, a physical trait or a personal predilection. Just pick something and slap it down.

As an example, let’s say you have a bartender you have to write for a particular scene. You decide it’s going to be a guy and he may have a few lines of interaction with your main character. You start with an element of yourself, so you pick the fact that you don’t like cockroaches. You want to play up this fact, so as your main character walks up to speak with this bartender you’ve just created, he uses the bottom of a glass to crush a roach scuttling across the bar. BAM! Right there, this bartender isn’t just an automaton taking orders and this isn’t a static environment. This is a pretty seedy establishment and that bartender hates roaches. You’re off to a good start.

Next, add an element of someone else. Again, same as before, just pick something. Maybe you saw a random person on the street with really funky facial hair, you decide your bartender is the kind of guy who would rock some scraggly muttonchops. Not only is that one little detail going to leave a distinct visual impression with the reader, it’s also going to trigger a ton of inferences in the reader’s mind. The reader might decide that this surly, roach-hating bartender who works in this seedy establishment and sports scraggly muttonchops is pretty poor about their personal hygiene altogether, or they might identify with this poor sap working a job he hates. Once you get the reader imagining details that aren’t even on the page, you know you’ve done your job in making a believable character.

Obviously, your main characters are going to have a lot more than just two elements, but every character you write should have at least two. Whenever I’m writing about my main characters, I find it helpful to keep a mental list of at least four core elements (working in the same formula, that’s two from you and two from elsewhere) that I use as the basis for their personality and appearance. That way I have an idea of how they’re going to react in a given situation, but there’s still enough variability left to give your characters room to grow. Just because one of your characters starts out with greediness as a core element, doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. Letting your characters evolve after you’ve established them is what allows them to remain believable.

Fall of the Forgotten
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre – Fantasy
Rating – PG13
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