Knowing Your Characters – Part Three

For readers to enjoy your book, it is most important that your characters and their behaviours are believable. I remember in my early efforts at writing, I created good characters who did everything right, and bad characters who did everything wrong. It was really hard for me to give my good characters any flaws, or to give the bad guy credit for doing anything right or having any redeeming qualities.

It took a lot of rewriting to shape believable characters for my first novel. But trust me, it gets easier. Think of any person you know and like a lot. Are they really perfect? Just because we easily forgive their shortcomings, doesn’t mean they are perfect and have no flaws. We just like to bury those flaws. Look hard and you will find a flaw that your character might have which the reader will forgive, but which also makes the character more human.

The same goes for someone we may not like. If we took the time to get to know them, we would have to admit that they’re not ALL bad. Give your antagonist some redeeming quality. You’ll be surprised how the reader will then care about what happens to him, or at least feel some empathy for his situation.

Using these flaws effectively can help enrich your novel and make it easier for your readers to believe what your characters do, and it enhances our emotional involvement with those characters. If we don’t care about the characters, why bother to read the book?

So we have to know our characters if we are to tell their story. We need to know their long-term goals and their short-term goals. We don’t want the reader to wonder, “Why would he do a thing like that?”

In building the background for the character’s motivation, we might work in some family background, some incidental things that help the reader understand why the character would react the way he does as the story develops. Short flashbacks can lay the groundwork for what has shaped the character’s emotional growth, his attitudes, and his ways of dealing with situations that will come up in your plot.

How else do readers learn about the characters?

  1. The author can simply tell about the character. This is probably the easiest way but not necessarily the most convincing.
  2. Have the character tell about himself.
  3. Have another character tell about him. (This way is more believable.)
  4. Show what the character is like by his actions.

All of these methods can be used, but the last one is probably the most effective and the most believable.

Body Language

If you take the time to find stronger verbs when the character is doing anything, you can often come up with something that more precisely describes how the character behaves. Does he stand or does he slouch? Does he limp? If so, why? Does he move erratically or are his movements smooth? Find the verb that accurately describes this.

For every action the character does, consider whether the verb you use is the best one to describe his particular way of doing things.

Emotions

You can show the character’s emotions using physical descriptions (sweat beading on his forehead, slumped shoulders, furrows in the forehead).

Another way is to show some action that tells how he might be feeling. Is he drumming is fingers, sighing heavily, flexing his jaw muscles, squinting or rolling his eyes, waggling his head, lifting his chin, biting his lower lip?

Dialogue

What a person says and how he says it can tell you a lot about how they are feeling and about what kind of person they are. This is a huge topic and I would like to deal with that in a separate post.

*****

Meanwhile, study the people around you and make a note of their flaws and their redeeming qualities. You’ll be surprised how useful these can be when you incorporate them in your writing.

18 thoughts on “Knowing Your Characters – Part Three

  1. Fantastic post, Anneli! I may have mentioned it before, but I use the enneagram of personality to shape the positive and negative progression of character behaviors based on plot events. You nailed keys to making their reactions believable. Kudos!

    BTW: If anyone is interested in a matrix of key traits and behaviors based on positive and negative stimuli, visit my site and enter “enneagram” into the search box at the top for a free download.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, that’s perfect, Carol. There are a lot of imperfections out there in the world and they need not be insurmountable problems for them to work in a character of our novels. As you say, we can begin with our own flaws.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Being that I write character driven novels over plot driven, it gets difficult to come up with new body language and dialogue sometimes. I have an emotions thesaurus that I reference, but there are only so many choices. Still, character traits are come a little smoother for me than researching the factual parts of a story. I’m working on notes for my next book, and I’m struggling more with the factual pieces rather than the fictional. I want my character to have a profession in the medical field, and I’m struggling with finding info and choosing what type of medical work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Umm, my reply posted before I was finished. I have no idea how. I was moving my curser around, so maybe it clicked on ‘post comment.’ Anyway, I’ll just leave it at that. 🤷‍♀️

      Like

    • A couple of things come to mind. People have different combinations of character traits, and probably one or two behaviours unique to one character are all it takes to help the reader identify the character. People watching is still one of my favourite ways to choose a trait. On the factual part, besides internet info, if you can visit the professional place of work, you might be able to take time to look around and possibly find a friendly person who isn’t too busy to answer one or two questions you have ready for them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can imagine if they are in the medical field, they don’t have much time, but maybe you’ll find someone. Keep trying. For some things you might be able to get help online. Also, if you can find someone who is retired from the job, they might have more time to spend on your questions. It’s a challenge all right.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I’ve always felt it’s important to show a character with flaws (and/or imperfections, obsessions, worries, etc.) and then as the novel goes on, the character improves on her imperfections while learning a thing or two about herself.

    Liked by 1 person

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