Developing believable characters: the basics
Characters…we all have them. We are them. They are our friends, family members but most importantly, they are the characters in our story.
Sometimes, we want to guarantee our characters are unique, so the resulting person is not based on a friend or family member, or even ourselves. The character is unique, different.
The problem, here, is that anyone can create a character. If a character isn’t thought out enough, the result is a flat person who could be anyone. The group of people to your left? What can you tell me about them? Nothing, so let us get to work.
First, how will you get your answers from a quiet character?
Sometimes you start with a plot, not a character. That makes character building difficult, but not impossible. Some people want to let their character form as they go, but sometimes the end result is a two-dimensional character.
Start with something you know. What is the plot? What kind of character would you, ideally, place in the middle of this story? What would they have to overcome, or what problems or actions would you want to see in the story? What type of person would even fit in your plot, situation, story, etc.?
Don’t let your character appear and form without a foundation. Sometimes, it may work. It’s not always the case, though, and you want this story to be the best it can be…so why not give it the best shot it has? Yes, the goal is just to write. And please do, but know who you’re writing about. That’s who drives the story forward; that’s who fuels your creative mind.
How much of a character should be in a story?
What we’re about to go over is important, but let me stress this: Not everything you know about your character will be in your story.
You want to build your character to make them real. It’s a lot easier to write about someone you know than it is to come up with hair color in chapter four and accidentally change it in chapter eight. Not everyone can outline a character, but even if you simply write your first draft and build as you go, you want to try to end up with a character outline so you can develop them during revisions. Here’s an article if you’ve reached the revision stage on revising your character.
Remember, this article isn’t an in-depth character development article. It’s the beginning of character creation. If you have a character and their basic motives, values, purpose, etc., here’s an article on further development.
Basic Character Building
There are obvious things you have to know about your character, and most writers think about this before giving them the honorable title of “Main Character.”
- body style
- family members
- purpose in the story
Simple things. But with these things, we have a basic character. We will say our MC is a broad man, about 30 years of age, and his name is John Mackleberry. His family is in another state, he was born on January 2, 1995, and he is the protagonist who meets the love of his life.
With that bit of information, this is what our character looks like.
Handsome fellow, ain’t he? No, we don’t know. We know something about him, we even know he will fall in love, but we still don’t know much about the guy. We don’t even know what color his hair is yet. We should keep going.
Ask your character what you would ask an MC applicant
I won’t get into physical details yet. Typically, you will know this almost immediately because it is typically part of your description in a scene. (“Georgia spun her raven hair around a manicured finger.” You know. Stuff like that.) I want to get a certain point across so we’ll look at aesthetics later.
There are a few things you can establish by simply looking at someone, and there are other things, equally as simple, that you will need to ask the stranger. Yes, the above information is something you would need to ask, too, but let’s look a little deeper. You’re interviewing someone who wants to be your main character, so don’t think they’ll be disturbed when you ask some of these questions; they just want to be your main character. They’ll give you their credit card information if you ask for it. (Stores will not accept fictional characters’ credit cards. Just saying.)
- is the character athletic?
- current occupation
- allergies? diseases?
- what does his or her voice sound like?
- quirks or mannerisms? bad habits? good habits?
- smart person or major slacker?
- favorite movie/book/song/etc.
- goals in life
The list could go on, but these are some of the basic questions you could ask your character. No, you don’t have to include every one of these facts in your book. But if you know the answer to these questions, you will discover so much about your character, and you will have a stronger plot with a personality to back it up. What does our guy look like now? Let’s pretend he’s athletic, a coach, and he has asthma. That would get in the way of his athleticism don’t you think? That will give the plot a twist. We’ll give our guy, John, some intelligence, and he’ll be right-handed. He doesn’t like reading, and he has a habit of feeling the need to prove he can do things because his asthma always held him back from what he loves—basketball.
Get more background
We are finding some good information on our character, John Mackleberry. We can assume he’s a tad arrogant because he’s trying to prove himself. He’s a basketball coach so we could also say he wanted to remain in basketball even if he couldn’t play because his asthma got worse as he aged. When you find out information like this, you’ll be able to reason with your character and understand why he or she is that way. It’s a process, but it’s fun. You’re meeting someone new! What writer doesn’t like meeting someone they don’t have to actually impress?
You could even find out other information. This will help you understand your character’s mannerisms and quirks. It’ll also lend a hand when you’re writing the story. Maybe your brain surprises you and John cheats on his love interest. He’s a great guy, but he cheated. Really, brain? Well, why? Let’s go to the questions we would have asked that could answer the question for us.
- how was your character’s childhood?
- strengths? weaknesses?
- did he or she enjoy their childhood? Why/why not?
- any previous relationships? How did they end?
- criminal record?
- influence in life?
- most important memory (best and worst)
- do you share your thoughts and feelings? Why/why not?
- relationship with family
- drug/alcohol history
- daily routine
- organization skills
- what would your character change about himself/herself
- what does your character believe in?
- what haunts your character at night?
- how does your character normally react to emotions? Why? (refer to background info)
What a list. The crazy part is that this isn’t anything compared to all the things you could ask. These are just a few. There are always follow-up questions, and you may not even want to know some of these. Again, it’s always a good thing, but I don’t know what my best friend’s most important memory is. Questions change depending on your story but if someone walked into your writing place and wanted to be your main character, you’d want to know some of these so you could portray them to the best of your ability, wouldn’t you?
So let’s say John hated his childhood. He had doctor appointments because his asthma was so bad, he never went to P.E. because he was so accident-prone he broke his leg twice in primary school and never had to go. He loves his parents and respects people older than him because his teachers and the principal would entertain him when other kids drove him away. He also had silver caps for teeth because he broke seven in one of his accidents. Thankfully, they were his baby teeth. He’s insecure now, and he likes to yell at his kids in basketball because he thinks they need it; they probably don’t get it at home. He also watches out for one of his players who is short and frail; the kid loves basketball, but he’s a terrible player. The team members tease him playfully on the court, but they bash his playing skills and John has heard them mock the boy for having a girlfriend so much taller than he is, which they say still doesn’t make up for the fact that his mom ditched him as a baby.
John doesn’t tolerate bullies. He picked up basketball in middle school because one of the coaches stood up for him and offered to teach him after school. Now, he wants to return the favor, and this kid’s mother is the future love interest.
That was a lot of information, but it didn’t even cover all the questions. However, because I answered several questions, I managed to find a reason why he would meet this love interest in the first place. I also found a reason he would cheat on her; his insecurity and need to prove himself. (Technically, we’re still in the beginning stage so I wouldn’t have known he’d cheat yet. I just know what kind of guy he is so when my brain types out this cheating scene and my mouth flies open, I can fill in the blanks and understand why so the readers can, too…later.) I could go in more depth with John Mackleberry, but this would become a much longer post. However, I have never heard of a John Mackleberry, and I am really interested in this guy. (I don’t know if you are, but I am. That’s what matters.) I have a few subplots to add to this because I allowed myself to understand my character better. I have direction.
Look at that fellow over there…all realistic and whatnot…?
We have learned quite a bit about John Mackleberry. I’m a bit curious to know if he gets over his internal battles to get the woman of his dreams. I haven’t even started creating her, but I can. I could go through the same steps to do so, and I could use what I know about him (and her son, apparently) to create her. What a deal!
Now, we need to know how this dude looks. He’s great and all, kinda flawed, but generally a good guy. Cool beans, but we need some imagery when we do write about John Mackleberry, the basketball coa who falls in love.
- eyes/hair/skin color
- favorite clothes
- daily outfit
- nice clothes (when does he wear them?)
- tattoos/scars/blemishes/birth marks
- skin problems?
- hair loss? how long is it, if at all?
Even if I don’t tell you what he looks like, I bet you can tell me this guy isn’t John Mackleberry. If you think it is, you’re terribly wrong and I’m shaking my head at you. Try again. Read the entire post this time.
Hopefully, you can better understand how to make a realistic character. It’s not easy to define someone well enough you can point them out in a crowd but if you can (without info-dumping on your reader), you have a lot to say about your skill in writing.
Every question you ask your character will be different. Some will be the same, but others will vary depending on the character’s situation. What you ask and how you go about asking doesn’t matter. The key is asking.
Not everyone works well by an outline, but some do. Outlines are different for every writer and every story. Some need a detailed, thorough layout of what will happen, when, why, and how. I don’t, and other writers may not, either. Maybe even you. A basic outline can help, though, just like an outline of your characters will. Read my article on writing an outline.
I could type for hours on how to learn more about your character or how to figure out your plot, but it’s up to you to put those words on paper. It’s also up to you to determine how to best get yourself writing. Try new things, learn the rules, then break them. Listen to music, pray, sing, dance, and do whatever you need to do to expel your energy so you can hermit for a while and write.
Have a great day and, as always, let me know what you do for your writing.
Oh, and this is as close as I could find to John Mackleberry.