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Creating Compelling and Believable Characters

Writing.ie | Resources | Character

Well rounded, real, believable characters are literally the life blood of great fiction.  It sounds very odd to anyone who doesn’t write, but once you find your characters and get to know them well enough, they will tell your story, will do things you don’t expect.

Thinking about all aspects of your characters personality and backstory will help form them in your mind – the reader doesn’t need to know all of this detail, but like the unseen foundations of a house, this information is vital for you as a writer to know. To quote Stephen King: ‘The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.’

Here are some elements you can consider when thinking about a new character:

What is their name? Names tell us a huge amount about a character’s socioeconomic background, their parents, who they are.

What is your character’s age?

Think about their appearance – eye colour/hair colour/hair style. Height, weight. What are their 3 most striking physical characteristics?

In just the same way that, when we meet people for the first time, we form opinions – often subconsciously – about them from their apperance, so your reader needs to see these visual clues too. A thirty something woman with a blonde crew cut is a different type of character from a woman with waist length auburn curls – but perhaps not in ways you at first suspect. As Stephen King says in his brilliant On Writing: ‘description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.’

Where was your character born? Where did they go to school, who was their best friend – are they still best friends? Why not?

What does your character never leave home without?

What are their weakness (emotional and physical)? Strengths (emotional and physical)?

What are their personal skills?

What does your character fear? Regret? What have they been most influenced by?

What is their favourite song?

Think about your character’s parents and siblings. Where so they work/ what do they do?

Particularly if you are intending on writing a series, create a character bible on each of your characters, detailing their relationships is extremely useful. It could be vital when you get to book three and need to remember the name of Aunt Mable’s cat!

What is their favourite food? Favourite outfit, how do they dress? 

What do they drive?  A man who drives a Mini is a totally different person from a man who drives a Jaguar.

What is the thing that drives them mad?

It isn’t essential to know all of this when you start your book, as Stephen King says, ‘give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly,’ but by the end of the book you should be sure of all the answers.

In this video from the National Emerging Writer Programme, Sinead Moriarty and Declan Hughes reveal how to make your characters believeable:

About the author

  • A writers' retreat space, in an old world cottage, overlooking Lough Derg in North Tipperary -
  • www.designforwriters.com

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