Creating Believable People

To some extent, writing is a lot like being a mad scientist from an old horror movie – taking bits and pieces of matter, bonding them together, and bringing something to life.  (insert maniacal laughter here!)

Or maybe it’s just getting close to my favorite holiday??

Actually, I really do feel like a mad scientist at times, giving life to my creations.  It’s a great feeling to capture the essence of a person who isn’t real and then breathe life into that person on the page.  Having a reader tell you that he or she would recognize your character walking down the street is a proud moment (I’ve had that experience a few times, and it is wonderful).  But what goes into making a character come to life?  What is that “magic elixir” that takes a bunch of words from your head, to your computer, to paper, to so real someone thinks they know that person?

Actually, it’s far less magic and much more observation that does it. Writers tend to be (although this isn’t always true) very observant people. We look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.  We dig below the surface to identify that gem which is hidden, lying in wait for the right moment.  Here is a real example of what I mean: Dr. Tom Bibey.  This man is an amalgam of wonderful qualities that make him so interesting that I read his blog on nearly a daily basis.  He is a charming country doctor full of old-fashioned (and not so old-fashioned) wit and wisdom; that’s the first layer. He is also a mandolin player in a blue grass band; that’s the second layer. And he is a writer seeking to share his insights and stories; that’s the third layer.  It is this combination of detail that makes Dr. B an interesting character, and one about whom I would pick up a book and read (so I’m very eager for his book to be published!).

But let’s back up for just a moment.  I get a lot of students and aspiring writers who want me to read their work, and I find myself making very similar comments to each: stereotyped characters.  Here’s another real-life example – no name to protect the not-so-innocent.  The main character is a young girl.  She’s part of the popular crowd.  She’s a cheerleader, but she’s really the nice girl and she’s really friendly to everybody.  She’s dating the football player. Her big flaw is that -gasp – she’s a little naive.

She’s also about as interesting a dish rag.  The problem is, this girl doesn’t exist anywhere in reality.  Human beings are odd.  They are a collection of good qualities, bad qualities, weird qualities, funny qualities, and dull qualities.  If you want to read about (or write about) perfect people, pick up something like the Bible, the Koran, or historical biographies of saints.  If you want to write fiction, let go of the stereotypes.  People like this cheerleader don’t exist.  Of course, I can hear one or two voices saying “Yes I do!” My reply is, “Apply with the Pope for canonization.”

The fact is that human beings are imperfect creatures with weaknesses, bad habits, secrets, regrets, fears, desires, and dreams.  This is what makes them interesting to read about.  Who wants to read about someone who is perfect?  Not me – it only reinforces my own phobias about my flaws and short-comings.  We want to read about people who are just as messed up – or maybe more messed up – than we are.  We want to see how they deal with their conflict to figure out if we can learn anything from them.

There are some writers who use character worksheets.  I may have mentioned before that I know two writers who use a character analysis system that is ten pages long.  Ten Pages Long! If I’m going to write ten pages of something, it’s going to be manuscript, not character analysis. I know other writers who say they use character information sheets, but what they are really focusing on is cool or interesting tidbits that they want to include in the story.  I can assure you, the characters they create lie flat and lifeless on the page, much like our cheerleader.

There is no one correct way to get to know a character, though clearly there are a lot of wrong ones. Numerous books have been written on the subject.  One of my favorites is Dwight Swain’s “Creating Characters: How to Build Story People” from Writer’s Digest Books.

From Swain’s book, numerous classes, and studying with very successful writers, I developed my own system of delving into a character.  I know a number of good writers who use a similar system to mine (we all have our favorite variations) so I’ll share that with you.

After I figure out the basics (name, age, gender, role in the family, etc.) I want to get to that second layer of information.  Who are my character’s friends? How close are the friendships? What is it that my character wants most in life right now?  This one is important because it leads to motivation.  If my character really wants to be left alone then part of the conflict I create has to force him or her out of that solitary comfort level.  Here’s a real life example: I have a character in a speculative fiction story who really wants to be a good kid, to get back to her family and get away from the evil (yes, evil) that is in control.  Unfortunately, to get what she wants, she’s going to have to engage that evil force head on and commit what she considers to be evil to get what she wants.

The third level of information I want is more psychologically involved.  I want to know what my character’s secret dream is.  This is what motivates a character when the going gets really tough.  It’s what he or she holds on to when all other hope is failing. In the case of my character, her secret dream is to make up to her family for something she believes is her fault – the death of her brother (it’s not really her fault, but she blames herself).

I also want to know what my character’s secret fear is.  What is that demon lurking in the shadow?

This fear is what looms at the apex of the conflict, and how that character handles his or her fear will determine the outcome of the story.  It also ties into how the conflict is resolved.  We all know that, in the real world, you never get exactly what you want, but sometimes you get a reasonable facsimile, a decent alternative. For my character, the secret fear is terrifying; it’s the fear that she really is evil herself, and that this dark side of her is the way she will be forever. 

That’s really the basic information I look for.  I don’t care what the character’s favorite food is or what his or her favorite color is, or what his or her favorite book-movie-sport-TV show-video game-etc. is.  Unless this information is crucial to the story, it can be filled in later, made up as I’m writing, or left out all together. Okay – I confess – there is one character that I needed to know what her least favorite food was.  It was mac & cheese – the orange kind.  She hates the color orange, too.  That’s crucial to the story because she gets committed to the loony ward at the hospital and her first night there they serve her – yep – mac & cheese. 

Building a believable person out of thin air is one part imagination, one part magic, one part science, and one part skill.  There are many ways to approach the job, but it is one of the many jobs that writing requires.  Slacking off or skimping on this one ensures that your reader will disconnect from your story, and the whole purpose that you’ve done this for will be lost.

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2 thoughts on “Creating Believable People

  1. Vyshnavi says:

    Oh my god I totally relate to your opening line. In fact I used the similie once as well. Once done, you scream, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

    Your blog is really useful reading.

  2. Kim Justesen says:

    Thanks for your kind thoughts!

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