Author’s Corner: Believable Characters

How Do You Make Your Characters Believable?

A story is a composite of myriad pieces: point-of-view, setting, theme, plot, action, conflict, character, pacing, dialogue and more. You need all of these parts to make good fiction work but, in my mind, none is as vital as character.

No matter how we dress them up, stories will always be about people. The trick, of course, is making the people featured worth reading about.

Readers want interesting plots, true. They want to be impressed by subtleties and thrilled by the suspense we create. For an author, worrying about subtlety and suspense, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of one simple fact:

Plot is Nothing without Character

Herron sits at a table with his books displayed

Author R.L. Herron

Unless you can populate your story with interesting, believable characters, most people could care less. We all love to read about characters who are courageous, smart, or funny … but we also want to read about people who actually seem real, make us look at something in life we may have missed, or reaffirm things we already know.

A good way I’ve found to approach your characters is to create a Character Profile for each one before you begin. By that, I mean a guide where you list facts and details to help you get to know your own characters.

Why?

Think of it this way: the characters in your stories don’t exist at all until you describe them. You start to breathe life into them once you’ve written those first words of description. How well you do that determines whether they are seen as real people.

Strong characters are essential to good stories. If you want readers to believe in your stories, it’s important for each Gentle Reader to believe in your characters. In order to do that, you have to understand them yourself.

Take this excerpt from my Gold Medal winning novel, Reichold Street:

I was already sitting on the curb under a big oak tree, trying to find relief in occasional humid puffs of air. A battered gray panel truck pulled up across the street and signaled its stop with a tortuous squeal. An angular middle-aged man slowly unwound from the driver’s seat. Garish sunlight lit the edges of his hair. It made halos of his tight, graying curls and gleamed brightly from the center of his balding crown.

Standing there in the street, he put his hands firmly on his hips and stared past the collection of mismatched dents and rust on his beat-up Chevy. He didn’t acknowledge my presence. He merely perched his sunglasses on top of his head and methodically chewed a toothpick as he stared at the sole object of his attention: the old white clapboard house across the street.

I smiled and thought: “Hello, Toothpick Man.”

Appeal to All of Your Reader’s Senses

When you describe your characters, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details you provide must appeal to our senses, since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues.

That’s why I wrote the line: An angular middle-aged man slowly unwound from the driver’s seat.

While angular is a good beginning description, it doesn’t go far enough. By adding … slowly unwound from the driver’s seat … the reader begins to make associations, as you enable their mind’s eye to actually visualize the character doing something.

A good author strengthens his physical descriptions by making details specific, selecting those that create the most revealing impression. The image your reader has might not be exactly the same one you have as the author, but that’s the beauty of writing. It doesn’t have to be. Each reader brings his own interpretation to each character.

Actions Are Also Important Elements

Writers of effective dialogue often include pauses, voice inflections and repetitions to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. They can also include gestures. In some cases, actions, along with pertinent environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words your characters might speak.

Later in the same chapter the above excerpt came from was this line:

She jumped at his touch, her brow an angry furrow.

Not a word is spoken … but including details such as this deepens your character description.

About R.L. Herron

R.L. Herron, the author of multiple works of fiction, including several Readers' Favorite medal winners, lives and writes in Michigan with his lovely wife, an ugly mortgage, and one extremely large cat. His books are all available on Amazon and online with Barnes & Noble. Visit Author R.L. Herron's Website, Broken Glass.

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