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Believable Book Characters

Posted by @Publishing_talk on March 29, 2014 at 1:45 PM

One subject we're not taught at school is emotional intelligence. Strange really. We are, after all, the sum of our thoughts and emotions. We are what we think we are and to a large extent we're also driven by our feelings. We just don't really talk about them much. They're personal, right? A bit taboo even. We humans are more alike than we sometimes care to admit. We laugh when we're happy or amused, sometimes even when we're nervous. We cry when we're wounded or upset, even joyful. We all bleed... friend or foe, we're still hardwired with similar needs: sustenance, security, belonging, recognition, love and happiness.

Truthful writing delivers a sense of validation and it illuminates our unspoken thoughts, needs and feelings -- however irrational and embarrassing they may be at times. And when it comes to writing authentic book characters, keep in mind that even though they're fictional, they should still be three-dimensional and believable, just like you and me.


Balance is important. Avoid laboured and repetitive descriptions, or having characters devoid of, well, character. Trying to shock for the sake of it can also be a turn-off. By taking time to build the right foundations, you'll be better able to colour your characters in with well-placed portrayals throughout your story, that will keep readers hooked. Here are five essential pointers to keep in mind when it comes to building believable book characters.


1.  Physical: it can really help finding a picture of somebody to base your character's appearance on, because it's a handy reference point as your story progresses. Also consider how each character moves, speaks and dresses, their height, build, age and so on. Make sure you think all of these things through well in advance because you don't want a character having blue eyes in one chapter and then green in another. Continuity is vital. 

2.  Background: we all have one of those and your characters should, too. What is their relationship status and how do they feel about it? They may  talk to their mum every day, or they might be trying to forget an unhappy childhood. Their kids could be driving them crazy, yet at work they're the picture of success. Perhaps they're the life and soul of a party, but will be heading home to soggy pasta and a lonely TV dinner later on. Where appropriate, use contrast to add colour. Like us, a character's background will have a bearing on their personality and how they react to things.  

3.  Personality: their likes and dislikes, foibles, traits, values and disposition. Flaws add colour, too. You might have a character who loves their pet cat above all else and would save it from a burning building ahead of a human life. Or, perhaps they're always sucking up to the boss. Maybe they're fabulously wealthy but they prefer leching off the goodwill of others and the state. How will you explain such things? As Chekhov famously said: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.  

4.  Make tough choices: when getting to know somebody new, have you ever found yourself saying, 'Me too!?'  It can be gratifying, even unsettling making a connection and realising you have something in common. Characters that are well written actually offer insights into our own natures -- good or bad -- and for that reason they become memorable, gripping even. Consider humanity; we as a people are capable of great heroism and yet conversely such cruelty -- then there is all manner of grey in-between. As a writer, you must from time to time be prepared to make some hard decisions for your characters, even life and death ones. Obviously don't do anything purely for the sake of it, make sure it fits with your plot and story

5.  Be real: there may be little traces of you in all of your characters, or perhaps there is one particular character who is a lot like you in some respect. That’s quite normal. After all, we write about what we know and imagine. Don't flinch from the truth, we want to hear your real voice. As Hemingway said: Write hard and clear about what hurts. There's something pleasing about authentic writing and believable book characters. They provide readers with insights that resonate and observations that thrill. Honest writing sometimes hurts, but it is rewarding. 

Put your best foot forward,




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Categories: Writing Tips

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