Some writers labour under the mistaken belief that background and appearance are all there are to a character. Add those things, character nailed. This is far from true. Building characters requires the writer to know what the protagonist looks like and where they come from, but a reader will only engage when a character comes across as a real person rather than a caricature, no matter their past or their appearance.
In fact, some of the best characters in literature are never described, and their background only emerges as the book progresses. The least believable (and most irritating) characters are those whose physical appearance is constantly pushed into a reader’s face, and whose background is laid out before we’ve seen them do anything.
Real people have personalities, traits, misconceptions, prejudices, baggage, and a host of other issues and virtues. So must a character.
So how to get your character to come across as a real person? Some writers actually use real people as a template. In fact, they might even be asked by friends/relatives to make them a character in one of their books. Sounds great in theory, but the problem is: it’s almost guaranteed that how you write that person won’t be how the person sees themselves. A writer stands every chance of causing upset and potential friction by portraying an individual differently to how they see themselves. Besides, why limit yourself to a real life person when you can make one up to be anything you want or need for your story?
So how to go about creating a believable character?
1 Establish Voice
When we talk about voice in fiction, we’re referring to the narrator, whether the book is in first or third person. That narrator needs to have distinct inflections and mode of speech which differentiate them from other characters. Voice is a good way to give a character personality. If using third person and multiple viewpoints, you need to establish a different voice for each viewpoint character. This also helps remind or forewarn the reader that there’s been a viewpoint change.
2 Character Sheets
Some writers do, some don’t. If you can’t visualise your character thoroughly enough, using a character sheet is a good way to give them substance. This document can be useful, but while its contents can be used as building blocks for your character, not all the information need come out, and certainly not all at once. The main point of using a character sheet is for you to know your character before you include them in your story. A standard character sheet may go into extreme detail and you might not need all the categories. Cherry pick what will establish your character to your satisfaction. Here’s a template Character Sheet you can use to carry out this task.
3 Let Others Do The Work
You can get away with some character description by having other characters describe them in dialogue, e.g. “Forget to shave this morning, Mike?” You can also deliver description indirectly. ‘Even at the back of the crowd, he had little problem seeing over other peoples’ heads’. Sounds more interesting than ‘He was six-feet-five’, doesn’t it? The reader can put together their own picture of your character from small hints, and, because they’ve made the effort to visualise them, they will automatically like them more.
4 Let your Characters Think
Have a good balance between action and introspection. Events happening will have an effect on the character’s thoughts, feelings and ideas. You can reveal a lot about your character by exploring their inner thoughts. Provided the narrative doesn’t become too bogged down with this, thus slowing the pace of the book, your reader can learn how your character thinks, and what their morals and beliefs are, without you actually telling them.
5 Give them Five Senses
Our primary sense is sight, but the book, and your character, can be enriched by including as many of your character’s other senses as possible. Can they smell something? Do they find it pleasant or repulsive? Does it remind them of something or someone? Are they cold/hot? What can they hear? As well as senses, remember pain, pleasure, anger, fear and other emotions. All these things go towards making your character more human.
Your character, and how well they are perceived by the reader, can make or break a book. A reader will often forgive a thin plot if the characters are ones they enjoy spending time with. Try these writing exercises to really bust out some great characters; Creating Memorable Characters Part 1 and Part 2.