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.
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:
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.
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.
Men use just as many words as women do, but they tend to divide and order them differently.
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”.
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
Did you miss any installments of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8
Racing to the Finish – Part 9
Writing a Series – Part 10
Self-Editing – Part 11
Cover Design and Self-Publishing – Part 12
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,