Monday, July 29, 2013

Writing Believable Characters

At one of our writing group meetings a couple of years ago, a member suggested one of our characters could do a particular action. Larry and I responded at the same time . "Oh, no. She'd never do that." She laughed and said, "You talk about your characters as if they are real," to which I replied," Of course they're real. If they aren't real to us, how can we expect our readers to believe they're living breathing people?"

I've been thinking a lot about how we create realistic and believable characters, and I'll share a few of our methods with you.

When we initially discuss a story we want to write, we create character sketches for the major ones. The protagonist is better defined than the more minor characters, but we need to know some of the following about those folks we'll be spending time with during the writing of the book.

Young people growing up today speak differently than those who grew up in the '60s or '70s or '80s. And those from earlier periods had different speech patterns as well. What was happening in the world during their early years? Was the country at war? In what country is the story set? If in the US, what state, town, city? The life experiences of the characters will be influenced by all of these.

A child raised without parents will have a different world view than one raised by a single parent. And that child will see the world differently than one raised with both parents.

Was the family rich or poor? What was their ethnicity, and what were their family rituals? Was it a happy home or a dysfunctional one? Was the person abused in any way as a child? How large was the family? Were drugs and/or alcohol used to excess in the family? Where in the country did the child grow up? Small towns are different from suburbs are different from large cities.

We are all molded by our early years, and they provide motivation for the rest of our lives.

Lots of studies of the effect of birth order on behavior and personality have been done over the years. The order in which one arrived in the family has a great influence on their overall personality.

This came home to me when we had finished our first romance anthology, Snowflake Secrets. It's the story of four little girls in the years between 1958 and 2007. The novellas in the book were written by four different writers. Yet when I assembled the complete manuscript, I was struck by how accurately each of the four displayed the personality traits most commonly associated with their birth order!

Did they go to college or not? Did they marry young, or older, or not at all. Did they have children, and when? Are they divorced, widowed, single? What was their career choice? How did that affect their lifestyle?

This is very important. Does the heroine twirl her hair or bite her lip? Does the hero raise his eyebrows or frown? Does someone tap their foot or fingers? How do they react to other people? Do they become quiet or do they become aggressive?

You have to know this about each and every main character in the book so you know how they will react when you place them in danger or under stress. And you need to know what they have to lose and how important it is to them.

What is the rhythm of their speech? Their area of origin will dictate this to some extent, but everyone has a different speech pattern. What are their favorite words? Do they have expressions they repeat?

When we get the basics defined, we begin to note other characteristics as we write. The characters may end up very different than we thought they would, but we have a starting point. As we get to know them better, we discover additional minor nuances. Each of them must be distinctly different or the reader won't believe in them.

This past week we had to let several of the major characters in our current project, The Memory Keeper, die. As is our habit, we began to read the finished chapter aloud to each other. And we couldn't get through it. I was sobbing and Larry was choking. In short, we were a mess. We had become so close to these people we felt their loss as acutely as their family members.

When I was writing Ghost Writer, I couldn't figure out why I just couldn't finish the manuscript. It finally dawned on me! I didn't want to let the ghost go! He had no other story to tell, so when this book was completed, I'd never see him again. When I got the edits back from the publisher and reached that chapter, I wept again.

After we finished Snowflake Secrets, we took the final manuscript to the house of the hostess of our writing group to read it through for her. She had only heard it in bits and pieces. When we got to the last chapter, however, none of us could get all the way through. Larry started until he choked up. Then Luanna read a while. I had to finish it, and I wasn't doing too well, either. But Martha, our hostess, was sobbing. And in reality, that was the precise response we wanted our readers to share.

How do you create real characters who step off the page? Have you ever read a book where all the characters spoke with the voice of the author? Did you ever put down a book because you just didn’t care about the characters? I'd like to hear your experiences.


  1. Definitely great points about creating characters. Like you two, the characters I've created are as real to me as anyone I know.

    1. I can't wait to return to visit your characters each time I start a new book.