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How To Create Believable Characters In Your Novel

May 24, 2008
Actors - don't you just love 'em? Well you should, as you can learn a lot as a writer from the people who are always asking, 'What's my motivation?'

Method actors will research the role they're going to play. They'll consider the nuts and bolts of the character - be it a policeman or an archaeologist - and they'll also want to see what happens when the person goes home. What part of the job can't they let go of? What's it like to be married to someone in this profession?

When they act, the emotions and characteristics come naturally to them - such is their understanding of the role.

Other actors just turn up and read the lines. They need prompting as to what their motivation should be for a given scene.

Now consider your writing style. Are you a method author or one that turns up and needs to check the outline to be sure what the character's motivation is during this scene?

Please don't kid yourself that writers don't really research characters the way that actors do. They do.

Many wannabe writers will hide behind the props. They'll convince you that they've drawn up a character sheet and can tell you any fact about the character you want to know. Thy can tell you eye colour, date of birth and every distinguishing feature.

To these writers, creating a character is like taking part in a role-playing game. They've rolled the dice the prerequisite number of times and have filled in all of the boxes. Because they took this approach, the character ends up being one-dimensional. Just like in role-playing, the characteristics, skills and knowledge are all from the same school.

Real people just aren't like that. Real people are complex, hybrid monsters that would put Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to shame. Good guys aren't all good and bad guys aren't all bad.

Role-playing games create classes of character and so do many writers. The author gets fixated on a single characteristic or iconic image and every aspect of that character is then moulded to fit the standard template for that type of personality.

So how does the writer progress from 'Third Man with Suitcase' to Oscar winning material? Well just like method acting, there are various schools.

The first step is to hold up your hand and admit you've got a problem. Yes, you. We've been talking third person until now, but you know this article is about you - even if it's just a little bit.

The most popular approach to solving the three-dimensional character problem is close to home. Think about your friends and family. They're real people aren't they? Most (or at least many) of the characters in your novels will be ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. Even superheroes have alter egos that have mundane lives.

So consider your friends, family and colleagues. Consider their strengths and weaknesses, their plusses and minuses. What are their emotional highs and lows? If your latest character is a highly trained government assassin, that's fine. Give her the skills to do the job and then overlay the personality of a close friend.

One word of warning before we go any further. If the individual comes across any less that spotless, it's best not to tell friends you based a character on them. Trust me, once you get published, every acquaintance will want to know if that brave and overworked police lieutenant was based on them.

Is it that simple? Well up to a point it is. You may have to exaggerate certain characteristics but believe me, when you really analyse your friends, family and work colleagues, there's enough there without tweaking it too much. Real people - the ones you've been studying - aren't one-dimensional. They have negative character traits, phobias and insecurities just as much as they have positive characteristics.

So the next time you are struggling to remember what a character's motivation is during a given scene, remember this article and base your characters from real people. Now, move over John Joseph Nicholson.
About the Author
Mark Walton is the author of 28 Ways to Create Believable Characters, a self-help guide for writers. If you want to improve your chances of getting a story published then visit http://www.betternovelwriting.com/Characters.htm and see how quickly and easily your writing can advance.
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