Building Believable Characters
By: Donna Schlachter
Welcome back to our mini-course on Producing a Novel. This month, we’ll look at how to build and develop believable characters. Did you miss the first two parts? Hop over and read the first two sessions as well: Part 1 and Part 2.
Who Needs Characters?
Well, of course we all do. It’s who the story is about. Even a story like The Old Man and the Sea had characters—the old man, the ocean, the fish, the bird, the boat. He thought about his wife and family. Without the ocean, fish, bird, and boat, there was no story.
This might be easiest to explain by saying how not to do it:
- Don’t read off their driver’s license
- Don’t have them look in a mirror or a plate glass window more than once (in total) in a book.
- Don’t give so much detail that the reader can’t imagine the person for themselves.
- Don’t have the character think about her own hair color, eye color, or body description.
- Describe their physical appearance metaphorically. For example, “her translucent skin made her look like a ghost.”
- Use clothing or other items. For example, “The rumpled raincoat shrouded him like a burial cloth.”
- Use other people’s point of view. For example, “Tom eyed Bob up and down. Boy, he’s packed on the weight since college.
Our character’s story explains who they are, why they believe what they believe, and why they do the things they do. It also explains why they wouldn’t make another choice in a similar situation.
Now we know all this information about our character, and the reader is going to want to know it, too, right? Right. They just don’t need to know it all at once. Have the character make a bad choice and relate it to something from their past, but don’t say exactly what. Just yet.
Backstory, like compliments and salt, is best used sparingly. We never want to have a character’s history splashed on the page. Instead, sprinkle it in judiciously. Allude to why they think the way they think in response to a comment or action of another character. Many well-published authors say no backstory in the first 50 pages.
In general, women talk about the same topics that men discuss, but will have a different perspective. That doesn’t mean they have more or less expertise, just that female brains process the information differently than male brains do.
When women communicate, they tend to share emotions, feelings, dreams, concerns, and they look for ways to extend compliments. Women like to help others, including making them feel comfortable. Women tend to nurture, to solve problems by offering advice, to sympathize by putting themselves into the situation of the person they’re talking with. Women use body language and facial expressions, so be sure to include that information as action beats. Without that detail, the reader could misconstrue the words.
Walk and Talk Like a Woman
Women process dialogue differently than men. To that end, I’ve summarized a list I found on a Writer’s Digest blog post about dialogue.
- Women tend to sympathize and share experiences rather than give advice. Add empathy to your character’s reactions and have her talk about similar things that happened to her, rather than tell someone what they should do.
- Women tend to talk about their accomplishments and themselves in a self-deprecating fashion rather than a boastful one. Rephrase her comments in order to make her laugh at herself.
- Women tend to be indirect and manipulative; even an assertive woman usually considers the effect her statement is likely to have before she makes it. Add questions to her dialogue, or add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions.
- Women notice styles; they know what colors go together (and which don’t); and they know the right words to describe fashions, colors, and designs. Ramp up the level of specific detail.
- Women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they’re generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive or euphemistic manner. If you need your heroine to be angry, give her a really good reason for yelling.
- Women notice and interpret facial expressions and body language, and they maintain eye contact. If you need your female character to not notice how others are acting, give her a good reason for being detached.
Walk and Talk Like a Man
Men use just as many words as women do, but they tend to divide and order them differently.
- Men tend to request specific information, rather than ask rhetorical questions. Men also tend to reply to a tough question with one of their own. And if they don’t want to discuss a topic, they might use a question to change subjects.
- Men tend to resist explaining; they generally don’t volunteer justification for what they do. If you need him to explain, give a reason why he must.
- Men tend to share feelings only if stressed or forced; they’re more likely to show anger than any other emotion. If you need your hero to spill how he’s feeling, make it more painful for him to not talk than to share his emotions.
- Men tend not to pay close attention to details unless it’s something they’re interested in. Men don’t usually notice expressions or body language; they stick to basics when describing colors and styles. Scale back the level of detail.
- Men tend to avoid euphemisms, understatements, comparisons, and metaphors. Rephrase your hero’s dialogue in concrete terms.
- Men tend to be direct rather than ask for validation or approval. Check for “pecking order displays” between men of same status, and between men of different statuses.
Pecking Order Displays in Men
When two men meet, they assess each other’s status which then dictates how they treat each other. For example, a doctor and a mechanic meet, and this pecking order kicks in while they’re talking, to the point where the doctor can make a joke about the mechanic’s work, perhaps saying something about choosing medicine over car repair because doctors get to wear gloves to keep their hands clean. Both men would laugh, neither feels slighted, but the mechanic wouldn’t respond with any comment that could be considered derogatory or mocking of medicine.
If two mechanics met and talked, they’d joke about grease monkeys and the like, and think nothing of it because they’d consider each other equals.
If a doctor and a mechanic met to talk about car repairs, the mechanic is now the professional with a higher status and knowledge base, so he would be “in charge” of the conversation.
Note: if a woman stepped in and made similar comments as the doctor made to the mechanic, the mechanic wouldn’t appreciate it. Not because she is a woman, but rather because she is outside the circle of influence these two have created. As a result, we must be careful our female characters don’t step into the established relationships between male characters and expect to be treated like “one of the boys”.
Did you miss Parts 1 or 2?
Read them now.
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books (Part 1)
Genre and Markets (Part 2)
Resources for Part 3:
Writing Gender Specific Dialog
How to Write Believable Characters
Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters
Creating Believable Characters
Creating Believable Characters: 8 Tactics
Writing Authentic Male Characters
How to Write from a Guy’s POV
Creating Interesting Characters: Characterization by Trait
A List of Character Traits
Character Development – Creating Memorable Characters
Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
Find her on: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Smashwords, Etsy,