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Creating Believable Characters

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“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.

You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?

Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from  every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.

“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor

Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.

“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino

Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera

Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov

Related articles:

Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.

Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.

Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.

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What Makes a Page Turner

An interview with Maeve Binchy

This wonderful author was a favourite of mine as a young teenager. Maeve Binchy had a way of making me feel the characters emotions and kept me turning the pages until the very last one. I was almost surprised when I finished her book ‘Circle of Friends‘ as it was the first of her books that I had read and I couldn’t believe it had finished so soon. The experience was like a few hours with a great friend. You know when you cease to look at the clock, stop running though all the things you still need to do, and get so immersed in conversation that you have no idea where the time went? Well, that was what her books were like to me. There was a warmth in her writing and an understanding of people, and of life, which made me pick up and finish one book after the next. Every writer wants to emulate this in their books and every reader seeks this kind of book – a page turner. She shares her experiences.

So, what does she have to say about make a book a page turner?

Use your experiences – 

She emphasises the need for characters to do ordinary things, and draws on her experience of staying a hotel and not knowing whether or not to make the bed, as she had never stayed in a hotel before. Amazingly, many readers sent her letters to say that they had the same question. It seems basic, but finding every day situations that will help the reader to connect with a character and will add to the emotional connection is important.

People need to get to know the characters quite well –

Readers often feel the same way as a character in a given situation, and characters make mistakes. We all make mistakes and part of the reading experience, I think, is to have that ‘me too’ moment when you feel for the character because you have been in that situation or you are rooting for them and want things to work out. That is the mark of a good book.

Good doesn’t always triumph –

Good does not always win over evil in a book but it is important for the characters to make life as good as it can be. Maeve says that all her heroes always make life as good as possible in her books. You might have an antagonist who obviously choses a different route but it is important for the protagonist get to a point where they find the best of life.

Not every book needs to have an epic story line to be successful – 

Plot is important but a book does not need to be Lord of the Rings to succeed. Take a look at Fifty Shades of Grey! The key element of a book for readers and writers alike should be the characters and what they are striving for, or avoiding, or delaying. Whatever the purpose of their actions, their thoughts and actions need to be compelling.