How to Create Believable Main Characters
Knowing how to bring non-existent people to life on the page is an essential skill for any writer, and even more so when deadlines are tight.
When time is of the essence, and you have to keep yourself motivated, forcing yourself to write a novel with a flat, dull or uninspiring main character quickly turns into something like a road trip with your least favorite classmate.
Beyond being interesting enough to keep you writing for 30 days and 50,000 words (in the case of NaNoWriMo) a character has to be one other thing: believable.
Unbelievable characters tend to do things no normal person would (or could) do. They act irrationally or are clearly little more than vessels for a deus ex machina – one of the most unsatisfying experiences in any novel.
So how do you avoid unbelievability when you create a character, especially when writing sci-fi or fantasy?
There are a few ways, and they start with their physical appearance.
On the page, many writers begin by describing how their characters look. Things like ‘she had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a wide smile.’ But is hair color, eye color, and one defining attribute really the first thing you notice about a person?
When describing a character, you want to hold back just enough to let the reader’s imagination become engaged. To do this, you can generate mystery by making your physical description loftier, e.g., ‘the man limped into the room like an oppressive storm cloud.’ You can just see him: dressed in black, a sour or drawn expression on his face, probably something like an accountant or lawyer — and he’s angry.
Not to mention, we have an interesting Chekhov’s Gun in the form of his limp. How did he get it? Is it a real handicap, or is he faking for some reason?
Lofty descriptions don’t have to make full logical sense, and they let you play with metaphor while creating the quickest sketch of a character and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. To practice doing this, try coming up with lofty descriptions for people you see on the street. How would you describe them to someone else if you had to do it in less than seven words?
Next, when you create a character, you have to make them act rationally — according to the logic of your world. If space aliens land in your protagonist’s front yard, he’s either going to be horrified and call the police or roll his eyes because it’s the intergalactic IRS and it’s time for an audit.
This is a broad example, but especially in magical and alternate realities, you have to consider the furthest reaching implications of your story’s differences to the real world.
But in our real world, people don’t always act very logically. Grief, for example, can send logic right out the window. Part of creating a well-rounded and believable character is to sort out their idiosyncrasies and write them according to that character’s own form of logic. As long as the behavior can be rationalized, it can be accepted.
To build a thorough view of a certain character’s outlook, it’s worth taking the time to flesh them down on paper and develop a comprehensive understanding. Answer questions such as:
- Where are they from?
- How educated are they, and where did they receive their education?
- How many family members do they have?
- Who are their best friends or confidants?
- What are they scared of?
- What makes them happy?
- What are their hobbies?
- What do they dislike, in the world and in other people?
- What are they skilled at?
- What are they distinctly unskilled at?
Armed with this knowledge, prepare a short story describing a day in the life of this character. What is their routine? What do they think about? Where do they go, and who do they talk to?
Immersing yourself in this banality is, surprisingly, an excellent primer for getting into the character’s skin. Once you understand how they view the world and how they tend to react in everyday situations, it will be much easier to think how they will react when the action heats up – and much easier to explain the reasons why to the reader.
Another big problem when you create a character is accountability. Believable characters impact the environment, and people around them — it’s unbelievable to have anyone, especially a powerful character, barge through life doing what they like without having to face any consequences.
Consider superhero movies: at the climax, when the skyscrapers of the city are tumbling to the sidewalks and the hero is busy fighting the bad guy — who’s going to clean all of this up? How many hundreds of people were in that office building as it fell to the ground? Why isn’t the army trying to put a stop to this?
You don’t have to get bogged down in every detail – otherwise, Superman movies would consist of nothing but him filling out insurance forms – but it helps to do as much as you can to keep a link with reality, and consider your story from your ancillary characters’ points of view. If a particular act has wide effects, make sure you include consequences that the character will personally need to deal with – or, indeed, run away from.
What approach do you take when you sit down to create a character? Which questions do you ask yourself, and how do you keep their actions consistent? Do you take things further by inking out a visual representation or something more? Tell us in the comments!