Monday, July 29, 2013

Bill Hiatt – How to Make Your Characters More Believable


How to Make Your Characters More Believable

by Bill Hiatt

Greetings, and thanks for hosting me.

Readers often ask writers where their characters came from, and writers often wonder how to make their characters believable. The writers have to be able to answer that question before they can produce anything worthwhile to read, but ironically the readers’ question contains within it the answer to the writers’ question. If a writer’s characters come from somewhere (probably the writer’s own experience), then they will be believable.

Some of you may be snickering at this point if you know that I write fantasy, since some of my characters are obviously not drawn from life. Living with Your Past Selves features a main character who can remember all of his previous lives, an ancient witch, faeries, and numerous shapeshifters, among others. Pretty clearly none of those characters spring directly from my own experience. You might think that writers in genres like science fiction and fantasy inherently can’t write believable characters, but actually in those genres believability is critical. Clearly the writer has to create an imaginary world, but in order for readers to be willing to suspend their disbelief of that world, there has to be some element for them to care about. Yes, that’s right: that element is be the characters. Readers bond with characters because of their personalities, not because of their physical attributes, whether natural or supernatural. If you look at the issue in those terms, you will see that being a vampire, a faerie or an extraterrestrial does not make the character any less believable in the psychological sense than the character’s having red hair would make him or her less believable. Only a psychology that doesn’t seem realistic could do that.

Where do writers get that realistic psychology? By drawing on their own experience and the experiences of those around them. I don’t mean that characters should be thinly disguised versions of the writer or of people the writer knows. The former can make a writer seem too self-absorbed; the latter could in extreme cases lead to litigation. But a writer can merge bits and pieces from various sources to make believable characters. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald puts a big chunk of himself into Gatsby: his youthful desire to reinvent himself, his distance from his parents, his pursuit of a woman who at first spurns him because of his lack of money, his wild parties. However, Fitzgerald did not become a bootlegger to finance his romance as Gatsby does, and other characters also have pieces of Fitzgerald in them. Tom, for example, has achieved an early dream of Fitzgerald’s—to play college football. One could run through all the major male characters and find some bit of Fitzgerald in them, just as we could look at the female characters and find some bit of Zelda, his wife. If one were to research Fitzgerald, one could probably figure out what other elements have gone into the characters as well.

Ironically enough, making believable characters comes down to the old adage, “Write what you know.” A writer can’t literally always do that in science fiction and fantasy, but in any genre a writer can do it with the psychology of the characters. If a writer draws inspiration from his own life, then the writer will know his or her characters as if they were real people, and, more to point, write them in such a way that they seem real to readers. Perhaps that isn’t the only ingredient necessary for character creation, but it is certainly the most important one.


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