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How To Create Believable Characters

by Jennifer on October 31, 2010

By Jennifer Blanchard

Last week, I discussed the five things you need to know about your NaNo novel before you write it and gave you five resources to help you with your planning. But planning out the plot points and structure of your novel isn’t the only thing you need to think about when it comes to writing a novel (although I’d argue it’s definitely one of the most important things).

In order to write a novel that sits well with readers and keeps them reading until your very last word, you need characters that are compelling and, most importantly, believable.

Creating Believable Characters
The first step to creating characters that are believable is to understand what makes a person who they are.

As Larry Brooks so perfectly details in his eBook, The Three Dimensions of Character, there are three things that make up who you are (and who your characters are):

  • Surface Traits, Quirks and Habits—This is the first dimension of character. It’s how a character acts to the outside world. It’s a character’s personality. But while surface traits, quirks and habits are very important to building a believable character, if that’s all you build, your character is going to be flat and one-dimensional, which does not make for good reading. That’s why you need the second dimension (and the third).
  • Backstory and Inner Demons—This is the second dimension of character. It’s the background details, circumstances and information that make a character who she is today. This dimension shows readers the inner landscape of a character.
  • Action, Behavior and World View—This is  the third and final dimension of character. This is how a character acts, how they explain and rationalize the choices they make and the things they do and don’t do.

To learn more about the three dimensions of character, read Larry’s post about character development. Or for a much more detailed and helpful look at how to create a character, read his eBook: The Three Dimensions of Character. (Here’s a review I wrote of that eBook.)

Creating believable characters requires you to dig deep and really learn who these people are that you’re writing about. To get started, write out the backstory for your main character by answering all of the questions listed on this character questionnaire (which is excerpted from Brooks’ eBook).

Coming tomorrow, I will go into more detail about backstory and character building.

Be sure to subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss any of the pre-NaNoWriMo prep.

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is founder of Procrastinating Writers. For more great writing tips, articles and information, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

**I’m part of a NaNoWriMo blog chain. Check it out for even more great tips and information.

Note: The links to The Three Dimensions of Character are affiliate links. If you purchase Larry’s must-have eBook, Procrastinating Writers will make a couple bucks. Thanks for your support.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Syrai Linus November 6, 2011 at 7:14 am

Eh. Useful, but… I can’t help feeling something’s…missing? Oh, well. Like I said, it was very helpfull and added something to my character.

2 k December 31, 2011 at 2:50 am

I can draw my characters but can never sort out backstories and such. This really helps me! I’m going to keep up with you work. You are helping so much. Please continue to help people like me! XD

3 Melvins February 10, 2013 at 11:23 am

This is good n’ all, but I could use this same syllabus to create Prince Charming, the damsel in distress, the emo rival, any one of Michael Bay’s characters, any one of Sonic’s Shitty Friends, or any other half-bit walking cliche.
I usually try to stress thinking from when this character was born to where they are now in the story.
If my character is a bad-ass loner 40 year old man, but had a broken childhood to boot, then why is he a bad-ass loner? If his childhood was crap, you’d think he’d rather be trying to make his life better, not swatting everyone to the side. And his idea of making his life better might be hopelessly flawed, such as “get rich or kill everyone else trying” or “Shag every female-looking object within a 500 mile radius.” And every so often, you might get the bad-ass loner, but there’s little chance that he will only be a bad-ass loner. I just think back to what their whole lives have been, and think of what life actually is or could be, and I realize that a lot of people almost automatically stop acting like cliches.

Actually, to me character is subjective. So what if this woman is a somewhat aggressive, self-interested social worker who wants to be a hard hitting lawyer, and has some daddy issues and can never hold a relationship. Put them in an actual situation where they have to make a completely wild, uneducated guess and let’s see how they react. Give her that opportunity to take the job as a lawyer but her competition is the man of her dreams.
What I value most is not the characters backstories, but how the backstories shaped that character and if they shaped them in a believable way. “Troubled past+witness to trauma= introvert” isn’t necessarily wrong, but too many people think that’s where it ends. And often times, the character’s flaws are designed to not be detrimental to the character itself but just to be objects to be conquered, aka “plot devices.” The best characters always seem to have character-killer/dirtying flaws that really put a hold on this character and truly could have prevented them from reaching their goals if something hadn’t happened. And occasionally, the character only changes so much so that the flaw isn’t completely wiped out, just taken down enough for the character to get things done.
Maybe I watch too much cheesy saturday morning anime.
Just my opinion.

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