Nicholas J. Ambrose author of Progenitor
Believable Characters by Nicholas J. Ambrose
Just like anyone who reads and writes enough for a reasonably long time, I have steadily improved my game since I wrote the first real full-length book I have under my belt. That was completed between late 2004 and early 2006. That first effort was notably awful for numerous reasons, but perhaps standing tallest after the appalling strength (or lack) of writing were the flat, unbelievable characters.
Readers are intelligent, and should not be insulted with half-baked attempts at characterisation. The problem is even worse if the characters in question are those stood right in the limelight – your main cast. Your book will fall flat on its face if your characters aren’t up to scratch.
So what makes a believable character? Well, it’s not as complicated as it needs to be. A lot of new writers, when developing characters, settle for some kind of trait, throw a few tics in there to have something to throw in during a scene – that habit of scratching his nostril will really make for a believable character, right? – and then go from there. Which, almost invariably, means subconsciously bowing to the archetypes you’ve instilled into your character and making them entirely forgettable.
The other problem with that is that characters have no depth, and if they have no depth, it means they’re little more than puppets you can pull to your whim. That, in turn, can make your characters act unbelievably and without any real consistency between their actions. Not only is that poor writing, but it yanks people right out of the story they’re reading in order to question what the hell just happened.
I’ve improved my craft through writing more and reading a tonne, and any writer can do the same. Build a base for your character, but make it a consistent one. Don’t give them a few traits – figure out what has given them the traits they have, how they all blend together so each is subtle, not over the top and in your face. Ask yourself about your character’s history. Figure out why they are the person they are.
Give them flaws. Not enormous ones, unless absolutely necessary – subtle ones. In my latest title available on Kindle, Progenitor, I gave my character a quick temper. But aside from showing itself in a couple of pieces of dialogue and lines of description, you’d never know it from the surface. That anger doesn’t come out and slap you in the face, nor does it make itself all the character is about. It’s a facet of something larger and more complex.
Every character should be distinct, every one different and every one interesting. But more than that, every one should be believable. I don’t want to read endless archetypes when I’m starting a new book, nor do I want to question every inconsistency and wildly surprising action until I finally give up reading. I want to read about people – and people are what your characters should be.