Saturday, October 3, 2015

5 Must-Dos for Creating Believable Characters

She came to you in a dream, at the dinner table, in the shower. What did she tell you? Did she speak at all? Did her looks explain everything?

The majority of writers understand they cannot completely control their characters. Why? When you create them they become their own person. The writer is just there to report the journey through the conflicts they made. 

(If you need help with conflicts, start here: Conflict and Character.)

I've read from several reference books on how I go about creating characters. It's not so much that they help me come up with one, they help me dimensionalize (oh yes, new word) them into helping me create plot. Once you understand your characters it's easier to make the plot-plot-plotting as you type-type-type your pages. Your characters are the ones that move plot as they deal with the conflicts you've put in their way. Does that make sense? Comment if it does or doesn't.

To figure out your character the best way is something we all know and love, but somehow we get the descriptors prioritized differently, perhaps wrongly. What do I mean: the color of your character's hair does not matter when it comes to the reader (unless it's purple, or it's an indicator into something else in the story, or both). The reader cares about caring: the heart, the mind, the soul. Create your character from the inside-out, and let the outside reflect inside. 

Designing Your Character

  1. Establish Goals and Motivations
  2. Prioritize Traits
  3. Believe The Lie
  4. Cue their "Aha" Moment
  5. Flesh Out the Face (and body...and hair)

Here is my character template sheet I customized on Scrivener. If you don't have this application, I wish I could throw it into your computer right now, so you could get to work on it right away. But I can only send you this handy link from Literature & Latte. (It's a free trial; please take advantage! I adore Scrivener. It makes outlining and note-keeping so much easier. I'm an index-card kinda gal and this app really works for me. )


Look at all that craziness. Okay. It's not totally crazy. Actually makes some sense. Are you ready for the explanations? Here we go:

  • Establish Goals and Motivations

  • This is foremost because this is your plot-driver. Your character is nothing without desire, and your book is plotless if the character isn't wanting enough to be motivated. Establish a concrete goal and figure out why they are motivated to achieve it. 

    A motivation might be an over-protective family and the goal might be freedom to be their own person. 

    I have a character who comes from an abusive household. She wants to be independent and do her own thing but her family restricts her. The motivation might also be the conflict. It depends and that's another subject. Focus!

  • Prioritize Traits

  • You don't want an info-dump to make the reader groan and toss your book aside (or over the fence...cough). Put your character in pieces throughout your story. What trait do you want to show first? Choose wisely. The first trait is the one that'll stick to them the entire book. Like a first impression. This trait will be in their first scene. Are they a womanizer? Lazy? Hot-headed? Family-oriented? You choose. And then choose another. Remember Shrek? Your characters are onions. Make them sweet, sharp, or purple (purple poppin' everywhere today!), but peel the layers one by one, and give your reader a taste. Just a taste.

  • Believe The Lie

  • The Lie is their belief. What do they strongly believe in? What are they convinced about that is their truth? 

    Possible Lies: 
    • all women are manipulative See-You-Next-Tuesdays
    • You can only rely on yourself
    • money brings happiness
    • people are too stupid to live independently
    • killing murderers is not murder, it's justice
    K.M. Weiland wrote an excellent post on Believing the Lie and it's where I got all the questions for it: The Lie Your Character Believes

  • Cue their "Aha" Moment

  • Characters will grow. They will change. Their belief system may be shattered. An "aha" is the moment of realization. Their Lie will be put in the spotlight and crushed before the character's eyes. Truth rises from The Lie's remains and the character sees everything, from their first scene up to the "Aha" moment. What has changed? Why? How? If your character has no "aha" moment, there is no growth, and the reader will be left empty, and your book flying over their fence.

  • Flesh Out the Face (and body...and hair)

  • I said the outside should reflect the inside. Now is the time to look at their personality through their goals and motivators, their traits, and beliefs, and consider their physical appearance. A lot of factors come into play here: their location, origin, discipline, vocation, positive or negative traits, finances, etc..

    You're not going to have a soldier with long hair and a beard (unless they're special ops) but maybe they have a tattoo that indicates something more. Or a woman who is very uptight and doesn't have a single wrinkle in her wardrobe. Maybe you have a rebel teen who can't afford a professional haircut, so they cut and dye their own hair against their parent's wishes.

    Physical descriptions are lesser priority than what will help move your story. There are a couple exceptions that I use, but they don't overrule the goals and motivations which push the characters through conflict.

    Ultimately, it's up to you. I have given you my template in hopes of inspiring you to build your characters with depth.

    My character sheet is from months of adding and subtracting what I need to make it work for me. As you can see, I have "Food" and "Song" as a helper.

    I'm a former chef who worked in the Navy for eight years. The culinary world is a part of me and I know how it feeds into people's lives (you see what I did there?). Favorite food might not be priority, but it gives me perspective on my character. Kinda like going out on a date with them outside the book and just seeing them as a person. That's this blog, by the way: Dating Your Characters.  Their food doesn't even have to show up in the book; it's just something to help dimensionalize them.

    Just like the Song, which is my interpretation of their theme. When I need some motivation to write and need to get into a character's head, I have a playlist. But their theme song generalizes that playlist. For instance, my boy Caelum's song is "King Me" by Lamb of God. I listen to it if I need to and feel the anger, the frustration, the driving factor of him. That's why it's in the template. Add Song to your template, if it helps you.

    What would you add to your template? Would you take away anything? Please comment below and tell me if this helped or didn't help. I'd love to hear from you.

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