Every story needs believable characters.
Because characters that are not believable can easily annoy readers. I need to connect with a character on at least some level to get drawn into the story, to care about the character’s journey and fate. If that doesn’t happen I’ll lose interest in reading hundreds of pages about that character. So, if I can’t understand a character’s actions or reactions to certain situations, I’m likely to stop sympathizing with them, and – ultimately – stop reading. To avoid that from happening, I’ll now look into what a writer can do to make their characters believable.
Your character’s backstory:
The reader might (read: does) not have to know everything about your character’s backstory, but you should. Where and how did they grow up? Do they have siblings, what is the family situation? What’s their educational background? Their age? How about past relationships? Depending on the kind of story you’re writing. these (and many more) questions can help to identify how your character would act/ react in a certain situation. How they will deal with conflict. What their beliefs are. We’re all shaped by our pasts, by our roots, by our positive and negative experiences, by our emotions, our goals, inner demons, and fears. Your characters should, too.
A questionnaire-type character details sheet for all your characters (yes, minor characters count, too) can help you develop their backstories and serve as a reminder while you’re writing.
What is your character’s name?
Shakespeare might have written, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but let’s face it: that doesn’t really apply to fictional characters. You wouldn’t name an 18th-century Russian princess Laqueesha Beyoncé, would you? A character’s name tells us a lot about their identity, about their ethnicity, but also potentially about the era they’ve lived in, their age, their social class. I’m more likely to connect with your kick-ass superheroine if she’s called Sam or Taylor, and not Dorothea. You’re writing a sexy romance? You probably wouldn’t call the hot male love interest Hegbert. Your muslim main character wouldn’t be called Hannah or Esther. Choose your characters’ names wisely. (Same goes for your characters’ surnames, of course.)
Clichés, one-dimensionality, and facets:
The main problem I see when reading manuscripts is that many characters come across as one-dimensional. There’s the naïve one, the evil one, the understanding one, the sexy one, the dumb one. Remember you’re creating and writing people. And people have facets, layers. Perhaps there’s a topic the understanding one isn’t actually that understanding about. Perhaps the dumb one isn’t academically gifted, but has amazing social skills. Even a murderer doesn’t have to be (and probably isn`t) all evil. What about his likeable traits? Does he like children, have a soft spot for animals, or help the elderly across the street? Why did he kill in the first place? Was it pure evilness and anger? Or was it desperation? An accident? A mental disorder? If it was pure evilness, where does the pure evilness stem from? As I mentioned above, there needs to be valid reasons to explain certain behaviour. Being evil or dramatic for the sake of it is not a valid reason, by the way. There’s no black and white when it comes to people. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, positive traits and flaws. People are complicated, not simple. No one is just one thing. One-dimensionality is boring. And boring characters are a killer when it comes to drawing readers into your story.
The same goes for clichés. The scheming cheerleader, the dumb jock, the nerdy braniac; we’ve read about these kinds of characters a million times before. Yes, you can play with stereotypes, and that can turn out great, but generally, I’m more intrigued by characters that contradict those clichés. Or (at least) evolve throughout the story.
Important: if you write a character from a different race or religion, a character with an illness or disability, or a character working a specific job you’re unfamiliar with, do your research. There’s nothing worse than when these characters are built on clichés, stereotypes, and prejudices. That’s something your readers will not be able to overlook. And they probably won’t forgive it either.
Your character is afraid of heights? Don’t make them bungee-jump just for the fun and sake of it. Your character is only five feet tall? Would they be a basketball pro? Your character is a racist misogynist? Would he really refer buy that “exotic” waitress a drink? This has a lot to do with character development, but also with following it through while writing.
Dialogue (and voice):
Your character is a trucker from Texas? I doubt he’ll talk (and sound) like the Queen of England. Or like a 14-year-old teenage girl. At the same time, the Queen of England probably won’t sound like a Mexican drug lord. Does your character know medical or other technical terms? How so? Is your character sarcastic or known for bad jokes? Does your character have a catchphrase? Is your character a man or a woman? (Men tend to say things using fewer words than women, for example.) Speech and voice that doesn’t match the character in question is a real turn-off, but if you keep asking yourself questions about your character’s mannerisms, behaviour, and background, you can come a whole lot closer to a realistic and believable sound of dialogue and voice. Still, don’t overdo it. If the whole dialogue or story is told in slang or dialect, or your character uses the same catchphrase five times per page, it is likely to annoy a reader and/ or make it difficult to understand the whole thing if you’re not familiar with the slang or dialect. Overdoing it also bears the risk of turning your character into a caricature instead of a “real” and relatable person. And that’s definitely something you’d want to avoid.
Creating and writing believable, well-developed, and rounded characters is possibly the most difficult task when writing a novel, but your readers will appreciate it so much. I fall in love with characters, rather than with stories. The stories about relatable and believable characters are the ones worth reading, the ones I won’t forget straight away.
So challenge your characters, and yourself as a writer. It’ll be worth it.
About Julia A. Weber
Julia is a cardigan-wearing literary agent with a –sometimes unhealthy– love for books, sports, coffee, cake, romance, and eye candy. She hates the sound a pencil makes on paper, always (ALWAYS) has random numbers flying around her head, and her favourite pizza toppings are a combo of pineapple and black olives…just in case you were wondering.
While based in Germany Julia’s open to international submissions and is looking for MG, YA, NA, Women’s Fiction, Romance, and Thrillers. Julia is always on the look-out for new clients, but is also extremely picky, so make sure your query and manuscript are the best they can be before querying.