Common Writing Obstacles: Building Believable Characters

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This is the latest in a periodic series about the common obstacles writers face. Both experienced and newbie authors deal with building characters who are believable and real enough for the reader to want to follow for several hundred pages.

For some writers, this can be the most challenging obstacle to overcome. How do we make our characters real? How do we make a figment of our imagination complete enough to engage the reader? To keep the reader interested enough to stick with character on his or her journey? How do we avoid cliches, stereotypes, and making our character sound like everyone else in our genre?

This is one of those areas where we need to involve both the left and right sides of our brain; the analytical and the creative. The creative should dominate the process, but the analytical will help us to not wander too far into the weeds.

There is what feels like tons of information available for building characters. Some focus on questionnaires to determine character traits. Other focus on physical descriptions. Other deal with the psychological aspects of the character. Many are helpful and require due diligence on the author’s part to discover what works best for them.

What I have found most helpful is to let the character reveal himself or herself to me.

Ray Bradbury wrote, “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”

William Faulkner told a group of students, “Get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

If I had to give this technique a name, I would call it serendipitous discovery. Most of my stories begin with the image of a character and the question arises, “What are they doing? Why are they there? What do they want?”

And I let the character tell me. In their telling me, I discover their backstory, their personality traits, their history. These come out when the information is necessary and relevant to the story.

I once thought one of my characters was being stubborn in not revealing more of herself. So, I interviewed her (which is a great technique, by the way). At one point I asked, “Rachel, I don’t get you. What do you want?”

She did one of her fabulous eye rolls, sighed, and said, “Don’t you get it? Have you even read the book?”

At that moment, she clicked for me. What I was missing was her feisty independence. Men had dominated and used and abused her. No man was ever going to dominate her again. We’ve since become great friends. She is one of my favorite characters.

How do you develop your characters? What have you found helpful in making your characters believable?

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