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Building Believable Characters


By: Donna Schlachter

As writers, we understand the importance of plot—the action of the story. Without it, nothing happens. With a bad plot, we’ll bore our readers, or confuse them, and they’ll do the unthinkable—toss our book aside and never buy another.

Along with plots go subplots, those extras to the main story that keep things rolling along when the main story is off the page. Important to have the exact right number—not one too many or too few. Keeps our characters busy with the other things going on in their lives, because face it—we all do more than one thing.

We might also spend a lot of time deciding on setting—real or fictional—as well as themes, foreshadowing, and more. Every genre has its expectations. For example, in a romance, the reader expects a reason why the love interests can’t or won’t get together. In a mystery, red herrings and suspects and motives are of interest. In fantasy, world-building is critical.

Develop Believable Characters

Sometimes we can be so focused on these other parts of the story structure that we neglect to develop believable characters, so when we start writing, we simply get going on the story.

But often what happens then is that our characters start to talk and act like stereotypes, which is not what we want. Sure, we don’t want them so weird that they’re unbelievable. Or so evil the reader can’t relate to them. Or so wishy-washy our audience hates them.

No, what we want are characters who are different, yet the same.

I know, that sounds contradictory. So let me give you an example.

In my first mystery series, penned under my alter ego of Leeann Betts, my main character was a forensic accountant. YAWN! Accountants. In fact, the first editor I approached with my series flat out told me “nobody wants to read about accountants. They’re boring.” Probably not her fault that I didn’t explain my story better.

My accountant is a woman. In her fifties. Always ten to fifteen pounds overweight, no matter how much she tries. Favorite outfit are sweatpants and a t-shirt. Dressing up involves jeans. Married for the second time. Step-kids she loves. Living in a small town for the first time in her life. For over ten years. Still feels like an outsider. Loves mysteries, and hates to leave one unsolved. In fact, the first one she ever got involved in, she was almost killed. Hence my prequel story, Roasted Bean Counter. As you can tell from the title, she tries not to take herself too seriously. She hates exercise and subscribes to the theory that each person is given a certain number of heartbeats to use before they die. Once they’re gone, you’re gone. So she’s not going to shorten her life by increasing her heart rate simply so she can sweat. She also jumps to conclusions, or so her husband says. Not to mention that she hates change. Her motto is: I can be as spontaneous as anybody if I’m given enough time. Oh, and she tries not to take anybody else too seriously, either. Her sassy mouth and quick comebacks have often gotten her into trouble.

Did you notice something about my description? Not once did I mention the color of her hair, her height, her eyes, if she has a dimple or a mole on her cheek. Nothing about her apart from her age and her slight weight problem. Yet I bet you saw her in your mind as I was describing her.

Avoid the Traps

One trap writers often fall into is describing their character as though they’re reading off their driver’s license. Sure, we might disguise it a little: Her blue eyes contrasted nicely with her dark, shoulder-length, wavy hair, and at five ten and a hundred and twenty pounds, she was svelte but not scrawny.

If her physical description isn’t important to the story, we don’t need to know. So, for example, if her blue eyes made her the only kid in her family that didn’t have brown eyes, and her parents are both brown-eyed, this might make her wonder if she was adopted. Or illegitimate.

Dichotomies in physical build from her siblings or others in her family might also cause her to question her lineage. Being tall and slender might allow her to hide in a narrow space, which could be helpful if she was being chased by the bad guy. But bring that out early in the story—don’t just spring it on the reader when she needs to hide.

What does your character know?

In my mystery series, my character’s understanding of accounting, banking, and the court system are often used to help her solve the crime. In addition, because she needs to hold an expert status in forensic accounting, she must always act with honesty and integrity. Poor credit rating and issues such as overdrawing her bank account will figure negatively in that regard. I use both the question of integrity and of fiscal responsibility in two of the books to create tension between her and the crime.

I mentioned she loves her step-kids, so you can expect her to respond like a Mama bear when her kids are threatened in any way. Several books in the series center around family and the need to clear them of suspicion in various crimes.

Once you create a character sketch for your story, you must strive to ensure that every decision either goes along with who that character is, or you’d better have a good reason for it not to be. Unbelievable characters are those who act contrary to the information you’ve already told the reader. While you can put your character in a position to be forced to choose between two bad outcomes, there must be something the reader already knows about the character so the choice isn’t unbelievable.

Next month, we’ll talk about creating a strong secondary character to complement and challenge your main character.

Donna Schlachter

A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published 50+ times in books under her name and that of her alter ego, Leeann Betts; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.

She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats, finding mysteries wherever she travels. You can find her books on Amazon under both her name and that of her former pen name, Leeann Betts. Follow Donna on her website, blog, Goodreads, Bookbub, Twitter, and Facebook.

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