I am pleased to welcome Eleanor Swift-Hook to the blog today to share her thoughts about writing believable characters. Certainly, if a reader can't suspend belief and accept the characters you write it is unlikely that they will immerse themselves in the books you write.
Thank you for your time and observations today, Eleanor.
You are most welcome, Val and thank you for inviting me to your blog. Believable characters are one of the most important aspects of every book I write and I am happy to talk about how I create them with your readers.
There are various ways to achieve credible conversations in books. if you transcribe a real conversation then compare with any in a book and the difference is obvious. A real conversation is a mess: broken sentences, shifts of topic, lots of umming and ahhing. Written dialogue bears little resemblance to the real thing. If it did, your reader would probably throw the book at the wall within half a page.
This thought holds true more or less throughout writing. Your aim is a portrait of life through the prism of your own experience. More Rembrandt than Rankin if you like. You are painting a picture not taking a photo.
Equally, believable characters cannot be written as identical to real people. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but it’s part of what makes writing so fascinating. Accepting that the appearance of depth and complexity in a character is what makes them feel believable is the first step to building reader belief.
An aspiring or inexperienced writer can think they need to have a long document listing each and every attribute of a character, or risk the dreaded two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out. That is simply not true.
Let’s try a small exercise.
Think of a couple of those fictional characters you find most relatable and believable. Now choose three things about each character that make you believe in them.
We’re all different, so what you find believable I might roll my eyes at, but I’m willing to bet that the three items on your list won’t read like this:
(1) She has red hair and green eyes.
(2) She loves riding.
(3) Her favourite food is apple pie.
I think/hope your list is going to look more like this:
(1) She cares for her appearance but still always somehow manages to look a mess at the worst possible moment.
(2) She is really supportive of those she loves, stands up for them ferociously even when it gets her into trouble, and feels guilty if she fails to do so.
(3) She struggles to know what the right thing to do is in some situations and can even make bad choices as a result.
Your list is likely to be a mix of your own lived human experience and your observation of the human condition. Those are the things, the human connectedness things, that make a character believable. That, and the demon that is being consistent.
As Mark Twain put it 'It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.'
Real people are inherently inconsistent, but characters can’t be inconsistent unless with very good reason, because that consistency is what defines a character for the reader. It is what makes a reader feel they know and understand a character. It underpins their belief in the character.
If a character is always whimsical, but suddenly starts plotting, if a character is established as being compassionate and then casually kicks their dog or is always hyper-observant and then misses the ambush up ahead - these kinds of inconsistencies stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. They only work if they are indicative of a significant plot point and are used sparingly. Otherwise, the reader will lose the connection immersing them in the story and the character is not going to remain believable for long.
Whilst all this helps us to understand what makes a believable character, it’s not so much help with the purpose of this piece which is supposed to offer insight into the process of actually writing one.
Truth to tell, it is a bit hard to be prescriptive as there are as many different approaches to writing as there are people who write. But the key has to be empathising with the character in what they are doing. After all, if you as a writer can’t empathise with a character, then the reader will stand no chance of doing so.
My technique is roleplay. Roleplay is simply imagining yourself to be the character, imagining what they experience and how they would respond to it.
I roleplay my characters as I write them, putting myself behind their eyes, into their world view and writing from that place. I don’t view them on a screen or have them tell me what to write, I get into their heads and write their observations, reactions, thoughts, feelings as they interact with the events of the story and the other characters. It’s not a technique for everyone, but it might be one you would like to try.
There is one other aspect I consider vital in writing believable characters: logical character development.
Unless you are writing an episodic series of books - in which case your bluff, damaged, irascible hero needs to be bluff, damaged and irascible in the same way in every book - you need to show some degree of character development in order to breathe life into the words on the page.
In reality, people don’t always grow and learn and change from their experiences, or if they do it is not necessarily in ways that are obviously related to those experiences. But to be believable, your characters have to develop in trackable ways that your readers can follow.
It’s all about verisimilitude and not veracity.
So, to sum it all up, writing believable characters is not so hard. Set aside the thought that they need to be exactly like real people and write them from the inside - with empathy.
Eleanor Swift-Hook enjoys the mysteries of history and fell in love with the early Stuart era at university when she re-enacted battles and living history events with the English Civil War Society. Since then, she has had an ongoing fascination with the social, military and political events that unfolded during the Thirty Years' War and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. She lives in County Durham and loves writing stories woven into the historical backdrop of those dramatic times.
Twitter - @emswifthook