How to Make your Characters Believable (or at least convincing).
by Richard Long
In my novel, The Book of Paul, the protagonists, Martin and Rose are introduced in the first two short chapters, followed by the villain you love to hate, and hate to love…Paul. Here is a link to these chapters in their entirety if you’d like to stick your toes in the icy water:
William, the mysterious narrator of The Book of Paul is rendered more from a mental and emotional perspective than a physical depiction. In fact, he’s never physically described at all until the final chapter¾and the information conveyed as he looks in the mirror is unreliable, to say the least.
None of these people could be described as traditional characters. They are, to put it mildly…fringe types. I love the fringe. Fringe science, fringe people, eccentrics, weirdoes, oddballs, nut jobs, outsiders, outlaws, rotten apples, tough cookies, hot tomatoes, creeps, misfits, geeks and so on. Only one character in The Book of Paul is based on an actual person and he is, perhaps, the strangest and most frightening character of them all¾The Striker. Here is how William introduces him in his first journal entry:
The Striker’s “office” was a boarded-up storefront on Third between C and D. It was filled with junk and he threw some porno mags off a rickety chair to make room for me to sit.
Again, he didn’t say anything. In the silence I heard a skittering sound coming from inside the plywood walls. “What’s that?”
“Rats,” he said, sitting on a wooden three-legged stool that was full of nail holes.
I was glad he sat down. He was slightly less intimidating. Not only did this guy sound like Lurch, he looked like him too. He was really tall. His head was huge and out of proportion to the rest of his bone-thin body. His skin was waxy looking, pale with a hint of yellow, like parchment. His head was long and rectangular until it reached the top where his ridiculously high forehead became more domelike. Blue veins snaked up the side of his skull, which was a more apt description than head. He had long, white hair with a three-inch lock of jet-black hair dangling over the side. It looked like a cross between Cruella DeVille and Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
He sat down and adjusted his loincloth. His loincloth. He answered the door naked, except for the brown leather rag, which was obviously handmade, but so old and worn maybe the hands were Geronimo’s. He didn’t have many tattoos. The few he had were simple black patterns around his skinny arms. I wondered whether he was a junkie, because the veins on his arms looked so thick and inviting. I couldn’t see any needle marks, though his body was covered with piercings. His nipples, his chest…his throat. Not that many in his face. Except the nails driven into his temples. Yes, the nails.
Okay folks, does this seem like a believable character? Quite possibly not. He’s presented in an almost cartoony fashion. However, I do believe that most readers find him to be thoroughly terrifying and utterly convincing. The distinction for me is simple, if subtle. If I’m there in that room, watching this semi-naked, skeletal giant sit on a stool wearing a loincloth, my eyes-widening in horror as I realize he actually has nails driven into his skull¾if I’m thoroughly present and alive in that moment, with these people, and they are thoroughly present and alive for me, then I am convinced of the truth in that scene and it becomes real for me, no matter how bizarre and outlandish the circumstances. I am there.
Any success I’ve had with characterization revolves around a few core principles:
• Believable dialog is the key to believable characters. Once I’ve set the scene and the action is in full swing, suspension of disbelief is most effectively achieved by the words that come out of the characters’ mouths and the thoughts swirling in their minds. Tin-eared dialog throws me out of a scene more quickly and easily than clumsy narrative or turgid pacing. If I can’t buy what the characters are saying, I’m changing the channel.
• If I can see it and hear it, I can write it. Imagination is the key, and by imagination I mean the ability to enter a daydream state where I’m there in the room, watching these people, listening to what they say, wondering what will happen next, suspending my reflexive desire to control and orchestrate the action, but instead, let my imagination unveil the character’s intent. If I’m captivated, curious, surprised, shocked and completely involved in the proceedings, I can take a reader there with me.
• Less is more when it comes to descriptive narrative. Paint a picture of the scene in the broadest strokes possible. Just a charcoal sketch is sufficient if it takes you there. Invest your words economically to convey the heart of the emotional truth of the characters in that situation.
• Audience participation. One of the key benefits of minimizing narrative description is that it coaxes the reader to fill in the blanks you’ve deliberately left open. How tall is William? What’s he wearing? Hey, you tell me! If the reader is there, involved in the storytelling and his or her imagination is fully engaged, then you’ve maximized the collaborative opportunity. Reading is an interactive medium.
• Location, location, location. Where is there? Be specific. What’s going on? Why? The what and why answers might not be revealed in that moment, but if you nail the scene in terms of place, relative to the characters and action, you’ve gone a long way toward creating a powerful and convincing reality.
So that’s my three cents on creating convincing characters. What about you, fellow writers and readers? What works to wed you to the people, places and situations? What sucks you in? What throws you off, out and maybe onto the next book instead?
We’d like to know.
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Genre – Paranormal Thriller / Dark Fantasy
Rating – R