Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Creating Credible (But Incredible) Characters

What makes you the unique individual you are? Is it your looks? Your personality? Your upbringing? Your heritage? Your hopes and fears? Your strengths and weaknesses? Your likes and dislikes? It is all of that, and more. Those are the very same characteristics make fictional characters unique and so vital that when you’re reading a book, you feel as if the story people are a part of your life.

Family and friends help make you who you are, or at least help show you who you are by the way you interact with them. In the same way, an author shows a character for who or what she is. If a character has that never-satisfied mother, that funny uncle, that supportive best friend, the author doesn’t even have to create the character, for the family and friends already have. It’s the character’s interactions that show who she is.

Enemies also make you who you are, and they make characters who they are. The stronger the enemy, the stronger the character. For example, a character who combats dragons is perceived as stronger than one who combats teddy bears. It is also a character’s enemies who help create the story because they give the story conflict, and without conflict there is no story.

And finally, how you talk makes you who you are, or at least makes people think that’s who you are. Do you talk with a lisp? Do you talk with an accent? Do you talk slowly as if savoring every word? Do you use four letter words? Do you speak softly, either because you are timid or because of passive aggressive tendencies? In that same way, dialogue shows who a character is.

The more an author knows about a character, the better she can show you who that character is. In older books, especially the classics, authors wrote page after page of character description, telling us who their characters are. Today’s readers, myself included, have no patience for such long drawn-out passages that go nowhere. We want to get right into the meat of the story. We want to learn who the character is by what she does, who she knows, and how she acts.

But first, the author needs to know who her character is.

(To help you learn more about your characters, click here: Character Questionnaire.)


Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I.

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