Monday, November 24, 2014

How to Create a Believable Character

I do characterization sessions for schools and enjoy helping kids create their own. The following is exactly what I walk the kids through.

If the plot is the backbone of the story, then the characters are the heart. 

Creating believable characters is crucial to a good story. Your characters must have depth, personality, and the ability to evoke an emotional response from your reader.

Many writers envision the setting first and the people inhabiting that world second.  This sometimes results in shallow characters.  It’s easier to build a plot around an individual than force that character into unrealistic situations. Developing a character in depth, complete with flaws, will give you a basis for your narrative.

To build a character:

First, decide if your character is a male or female. Name your character if possible.

Two major factors will determine your character – their background and their personality type. Humans all share similar feelings and needs, but how they respond to those depends on their upbringing and their basic, fundamental personality. Backgrounds are as varied as humans themselves. Race, culture, religion, and economic status all contribute to one’s development as a person. 

What is their ethnic background?
What country?  Or planet?  Or world?
Every religion has morals and standards.

Where and how were they raised?  Positive or negative influences?  Taught responsibility?  Taught right or wrong? A person’s moral compass is easily affected by their upbringing, and you need to keep this in mind when creating your characters. Consider also any childhood traumas.
How many, older or younger?
Both parents?  Other relatives crucial to upbringing?
Upbringing and now – poor, rich, worked hard to achieve more, etc?

“Personality Plus” by Florence Littauer is an excellent book that outlines the four personality traits. Become familiar with these basic personality types – choleric, sanguine, melancholy and phlegmatic. They will also determine how your character reacts in any given situation. If you do not stay true to character, you will find them responding in a dubious fashion. Life altering moments happen for us all, but a sudden change for no apparent reason will be looked upon as a mere plot contrivance. These personalities often line up with the four birth orders:

Choleric- Oldest, leader, powerful, persuasive, insensitive, worker, extroverted, unemotional
Sanguine- Youngest, popular, playful, funny, unorganized, talkative, extroverted, emotional
Phlegmatic- Middle, peaceful, friendly, balanced, indecisive, slow, introverted, unemotional
Melancholy- Only, perfect, scheduled, artistic, organized, sensitive, introverted, emotional

Which of the above personality types fits your character? And it can be a mix of two.
What is your character good at? What are the positive traits? Do they have a good attitude?
Avoid the temptation to create a perfect character! 
People are flawed creatures and the more imperfections and internal conflicts your character possesses, the more intriguing your story. 
Give them weaknesses, impulses and unresolved issues. 
Negative aspects of your character might improve and eventually vanish, but this needs to be developed slowly during the course of your narrative.
Hobbies, studies, leisure, etc. These are often influenced by the personality.
What do they want to accomplish? This can be the force that drives your story.
How do they view themselves? Do they have secrets? Are there things they hide from others?
What quirks or habits do they possess? How do they speak? Do they dress funny? Have any strange rituals? Pet peeves?

Consider how your character appears -

Skinny? Fat? Athletic?


Color and texture

And what other information will you need to know?


Who are their closest friends?
Are they married or seeing someone?
Do they have children?

Characters will always be the drive and focal point of any story. By putting a great deal of thought into your main characters, you will form interesting, relatable people.

Once you have established this foundation, you can begin creating an intriguing tale!


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Diane .. what a great post with the accompanying lists. The kids must love working with you as you guide them along their creative route ...

Cheers Hilary

J.L. Campbell said...

Wonderful post, Diane. I believe that characters are the backbone of stories and that if they aren't compelling the story will be lacking.

Most helpful hint for me here is to craft them with weaknesses. That's great for making them human.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Just when I thought I had a decent character sheet, I see this. ;p

I never realized how important it was to have even the tiniest of details on our characters until my CP pointed out inconsistencies in mine. This is a great way to build them and keep them organized. Thank you!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's an amazing checklist!

H. R. Sinclair said...

Great list and a good jumping off point.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Hilary, I have a blast working with the kids.

Joy, everyone has weaknesses.

Elsie, I'm happy this will help you.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Excellent outline for characters. It really addresses all the big issues.

Christine Rains said...

Awesome list for creating characters!

Pat Hatt said...

Wow, that is the most thorough checklist I've ever seen for a character.

T.L. Kvanvig said...

Great info it got me thinking about what some of my characters may be missing! Or what trait did I give them initially and then eventually forget about?

One thing I did was create a simple excel sheet with character strengths, weaknesses, skill sets, down to eye color, tattoos, and many of the things on this list. I'm bad at forgetting things so when I'm writing I forget how important a tattoo may have been to that character or an action or trait. etc.

But having it in excel or written down helps have a reference as to who's who.. Otherwise I'd be constantly mixing up characters. :)

Julie Flanders said...

Definitely going to bookmark this one for future reference. Thanks for the tips!

Andrew Leon said...

I tell my creative writing students to start with character. It doesn't matter about how good the plot is, no one will care if you don't have a character the readers can connect with. The character is the one thing you have to have before you can write.

Donna McDine said...

Terrific post and appreciate your lists! Especially like your opening line. Thanks a bunch for the valuable information! Happy Thanksgiving!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Pat, I'm very thorough.

GrayWolf, I'd get things mixed up if I didn't write them down.

Andrew, character always needs to come first.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

This is definitely a bookmarking-post, Diane. And compact too. Thanks.

Lux G. said...

That's thorough! Thank you so much for posting a very relevant topic. This is very helpful to those who want to write fiction.

Michelle Wallace said...

What a handy list! Thanks.
I'm not bookmarking it...I'm going to print it!

Shell Flower said...

I totally agree that characters are the heart of a story. The four temperaments are a great way to classify characters. I don't see that a lot, so it's cool to see on your list. These are some excellent tools. Thanks for sharing.

Deanie Humphrys-Dunne said...

Excellent suggestions and very good explanations. Thank you so much for sharing them.

Nicola said...

In my former teaching career, I used to love to teach creative writing and used many of the same techniques. Isn't it amazing how children's minds work? My kids loved those lessons - me too. I am really pleased to have read this post as it bought back fond memories and reminded me that I should be doing this kind of exercise for myself :):) Have a good week.

Batman said...

This sounds too much like work ;)