The Art Of Crafting A Readable, Believable Character

Now Brewing: International Delight’s Iced Mocha. The great part about this is that you can buy it by the gallon at just about any store that sells liquid coffee creamer. This morning I used one of those water bottles that you can infuse with fresh fruit to make your own flavored water. I filled the fruit section with raspberries, filled the water portion with ice and poured this flavor over the ice. It was a delicious iced raspberry mocha in a quick (and much cheaper) fix.

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the first aspects that comes with starting a new piece of fiction for me is creating characters. I’ve spent much of these first few weeks with my new project working on character development.

For me, there are a few steps that I will always take when I’m building a new character. I try to do this for every “main” character in the piece, although the line between a main character and a supplemental character is not always definite.

The art of character development has always been one of my favorite parts about starting a new piece of work and the best part about characters is that once you create them—they never stop surprising you—if you do it right.

When I first started writing seriously I was about nine years old. Around that time I wrote my first short story, called “The Purple Life” and it won two grand prizes in writing contests in my area, including the top short story for my age group in the Southern Lakes Anthology contest that year.The story itself was not very complex and the characters were rather bland (think no names at all), but the plot was what won those contests. The story was about a town learning to accept everyone no matter their differences. After I wrote that story I realized that I needed to work on creating more believable characters.

For my birthday that year my parents got me my first official writing tool handbook, Writing Smarts: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Great Poetry, Stories, School Reports and More! It was with that book that I first learned the importance of getting to know your character before writing their story. The book had a character survey to fill out to get to know your character. Although I filled that write-in page out long ago; one of the most important tools I use for character development is to fill out a character survey or questionnaire from the viewpoint of each main character. Typically, I try to find a sketch that has an equal balance of basic questions (like favorite food or color) and deeper questions (like where the character would go if they were mad or how they handle having a bad day). A good starting character survey can be found here.

In addition to finding out what makes your character who they are—it is equally important to pick a name that fits your character. Depending on the story I use quite a few tactics to pick names. Of course I use baby name books when I have one handy or sometimes even a website like Behind The Name, if I want names with meanings that correlate with the character or plot. When I first began writing sometimes I would even flip through a phonebook to find last unique names. However I choose to come up with a name I always have to keep in mind that a name is half of what makes the character so paying attention while coming up with the right name is crucial. The following are three tips I keep in mind when I craft a name:

  1. Pick a name that reflects your genre. Although a pop culture name (like Miley for instance) may work in a piece of contemporary fiction—it would be out of place if you were writing a thriller set during the Great Depression. It is important to pay attention to details when matching your character names with your story. It would be silly, of course, to read a romance piece with a character with a Western name like Billy Bob. Genre fuels your characters and readers have expectations when it comes to the genre you choose to write so being mindful of those expectations is important.
  2. Try on the name first. You know the old saying, if the shoe fits, wear it? That’s what I mean by this. Try the name out on a character for a few chapters.  If it seems to really fit the character’s personality and actions after the story starts to progress—then great. If not, you can always change the name as you write. There’s no one to tell you “No.”
  3. Start with a cliché. Clichés, although in many instances are a no-no, are necessary to create a believable character. After you get to know your character and they seem to fit into a few distinct stereotypes or clichés, think of names that you would associate with that stereotype. For example, a sweet, homemaker from the South could be named Honey. Clichés can add dimension to name by acknowledging that the character fits the stereotype, so that when your character does something extraordinary, the reader is able to see the break from the mold much easier.

Another aspect about characters that it is crucial to remember is that your readers are human. They want to be able to connect with your characters. This means that your characters actions and the situations that they find themselves in, must be believable. Think about experiences you are going through in your own life—how did you react? How would your best friend react, or your brother? Use these real-life experiences to shape how your characters react to a similar situation. The easier it is for a reader to see themselves in your character’s shoes, the easier it is to relate to them and connect. In this month’s Writer’s Digest, there is an article called, “Be A Book Club Favorite” about what makes a book“readable” for book clubs. One of the main points of the article is that a book that has allowed readers to connect on some level with the novel, or perhaps the characters, makes for a good book to share in a book club setting, or even one to pass on to a friend when you’re done reading. One of the books featured in the article, Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane, is a story about a friendship that spanned across decades. The amazing part about this book is that it allows readers of all ages to connect to the two main characters Tully and Kate. Friendship is such a universal topic that a strongly crafted literary friendship can touch many readers simply by reminding them of their own best friend. This story in particular tells the story of their friendship as they grow—which means that mothers, daughters and grandmothers alike can reminisce about their own friendships at that age. The novel makes it easy to see themselves in Tully or Kate’s shoes because we all were young a one time and have all experienced friendship of some kind. As the article states,

It might sound obvious, but the number one rule for a book club book is to give readers something to talk about-a chance to give an opinion, perhaps share a memory

Firefly Lane gives readers that chance to share their own memories of friendship as Tully and Kate go through everyday life from high school to  adulthood. Hannah does a fantastic job writing the emotions of a friendship that weathers the years. Firefly Lane was featured in the article as one of the top book club books of the year in 2012. Its sequel, Fly Away, was published earlier this year, giving readers an additional chance to reconnect with the story.

Another article in the month’s Writer’s Digest gives writers tips on how to create a series. The article, entitled “The Stuff Series Are Made Of” shared another quote that relates to the importance of creating strong characters to drive your writing,

Readers fall in love with characters and plots. They want conflict but don’t want you to hurt their heroes. They want something different but don’t want things to change. But a character or plot that doesn’t evolve doesn’t remain lifelike

That quote relates to what I’m going to touch on next, which is letting characters tell you their story. 

Although it may be tempting to write all of the details about the character that you’ve found out from filling out a character survey like the one above—no one wants to read a story where every detail is out in the open from the get-go, so it is important to avoid idea dumping. The beautiful thing about characters is that their backstory and their personalities will come out throughout the piece, if you let them. It is not necessary to tell readers exactly what makes your heroine tick or what happened that made her distrust her father, because as the story progresses, those details will become evident through the characters actions and situations that arise will call for these details to be revisited. Although it is important for you as the writer to have any idea of your character’s backstory so that you can carefully craft their future from that point—readers want to be able to watch the character develop as they read.

Crafting characters takes practice and does take time. While I was writing my first novel, Second Shots, I wrote the first 150 pages and realized the name I picked for one of my main characters was unfitting based on her personality. So I went back and changed it. The fact is that if you write your characters well, they will continue to surprise you. This is one of the many reasons why I do not outline my stories before I begin to write. Instead, I write about 100 pages and then create a rough outline based on what has happened so far. I choose to do this because even though when I start to write a piece I think that I know where it is going, as I write the story never fails to head in a different (usually pleasantly better) direction. I have found that personally letting my characters tell me their own story for a while lets me better craft their story for the rest of the ride—which is always a fun one!

For more resources and tips on character development visit these websites:

Building Fictional Characters

How To Make Ordinary Characters Compelling

If you want to hear more about me or my writing, follow me on Twitter: @kweas558

All For Now,

Kathryn E. Weast


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