How to create believable characters

Some of you might have heard the question, “What’s more important? The story or the characters in it?” When I had just started writing, I wholeheartedly used to answer that the story was more important than anything. “Take the world’s best characters,” I used to say, “and put them in the world’s most boring story ever written. See what happens then.” In part, this is true, but only in part and a very small one at that.

Imagine the best and fastest car in the world. Which is it today, Bugatti Veyron? Is it still the fastest supercar? You can probably tell I’m not into cars that much. Now imagine the Bugatti doing absolutely nothing other than sitting there, all polished and shining. But immobile. Just parked there. How long would it excite you for?

Now picture a Citroen 2CV.

It’s an old car. It’s a funny looking car. It certainly isn’t fast. In fact, its best feature is that it’s too damn hard to tip it over. But it’s moving. Or crawling, in this case. Still, it’s doing things. It’s panting up a small hill and it comes bouncing down after it reaches the top. The centre of its gravity sways left and right like a pendulum as it comes crushing down the slope at the supersonic speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). But it’s moving. I’m willing to bet that after you got your breath back from the uncontrollable laughter, and finished taking selfies in front of the Bugatti (no duckfaces please), you’d stop staring at the glamorous supercar and paid attention to the 2CV. If not for an interest in the car itself, then an interest in seeing how many parts of it would fall off by the end of its journey. And all because it’s doing more than just sitting there.

Pick a story. Any story. Remove the characters. What do you get? Not much.

So, if gasoline and petrol are the fuel that powers cars and almost every engine there is, then characters are the story’s fuel. Even the simplest of fairy tales and stories that parents and grandparents tell kids to put them to sleep need characters to set them in motion. Without them, what we end up with is a world that feels almost dead. Or a story that nothing happens.

So what does it take for a writer to create believable characters?

Some writers are visual people and require a picture or a sketch of the character they’re about to create. They need to see the character’s face in order to get a feel of their actions, their behaviour, perhaps even the sound of their voices. Some writers use Pinterest for this and create boards to help them visualise their creations, and imagine them speaking the character’s lines. A lot of readers are like that.

Occasionally, I do it too, but not in terms of the actor’s appearance, rather how I’d like the lines to sound and perhaps how I’d like my character to behave (anyone who has read my work knows I use a lot of action tags – which is not necessarily a good thing, by the way) between dialogue lines.

Disclaimer: I don’t imagine famous actors playing the role of my characters just because I want to see my work on the big screen. On the other hand, I also don’t object to it, so if you’re someone who’s on the lookout for ideas for new movies, let’s talk business.

Some of the writers who employ this technique swear that it helps them create better and more realistic characters. I can’t really tell if that’s true for the readers as well or not. Usually what us writers have in our minds is different from what a reader creates with theirs. After all, part of the magic of reading and writing is this.

Other writers interview their characters. The way this works is rather simple; writers ask their characters a long list of questions about their past, their wants and their fears, how they’d handle a situation, how they’d reply to a question etc. What those writers expect to achieve with this is not only to get a better understanding of who the (imaginary) person sitting across them is, but also, through the multitude of questions, to actually “hear” their characters talk and sketch their mannerisms out.

Some writers employ personality evaluation. I did this for my current WIP (work in progress). In this case, after having employed one or more of the other methods mentioned here, tries to understand their characters’ MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). This instrument gives answers to questions about what kind of person our character really is. Is he/she an introvert or an extrovert? Someone who perceives the world through their intuition or through their senses? When faced with a problem, does he/she use logic to solve it?

When used properly, this indicator is a powerful tool in a writer’s hands. Thanks to it, we have a far better idea of how our characters are supposed to act when pitted against the multitude of problems we, the creators, throw at them, especially in stories that are less about the action and more about character interaction.

Another way to have a better understanding of our characters, is by answering some key questions about them. For example: what are the character’s abstract wants? For those familiar with the Snowflake Method, this question is related to the character’s motivation. The answer to this question is always related to the character’s past and has shaped him/her into the individual we see in the story. Another key question is, what are the character’s concrete wants? In other words, what are the character’s goals in the story? This is what drives the character forward. It’s almost always related to the events taking place in the story.

What are the character’s conflicts, what prevents him/her from reaching the goals? Also, what will the character’s personal challenge be? What will he/she learn at the end of the story?

Of course, in real life there is no such thing as perfection (being a perfectionist, this should also serve as a message to myself…), so writers need to bestow flaws to their characters, if we want them to feel real. Everything mentioned above (the MBTI, the wants, goals, and needs, the psychological traits etc) also create flaws. Characters who are introverts may go to extremes and shut themselves out from the rest of the world. Characters who think less before they act may end up getting into trouble. Those who have suffered a great tragedy in their past (character motivation) often see the world skewed and ill-perceived. Depending on your story and setting, this creates a range of problems for them to overcome, thus making them more realistic.

Much like us, characters should change over the course of the story. It doesn’t have to be something big, as long as there’s change. In my current WIP (my cyberpunk story), my main character changes his view and belief about the corporate conglomerate that governs his world, but he also changes the way he perceives the world he inhabits over time. The change doesn’t have to be a positive thing, unless your genre demands it. It doesn’t have to be something that stands out like a fly floating in milk. It can very well be something subtle, like being a little bit more confident, when dealing with a character who has self-esteem issues, or for a solitude person to accept someone else’s company. The possibilities are quite endless.

In the case of villains, writers should keep in mind that every character is multidimensional, which means that the bad guys, a) always have a reason they turned out the way they are, b) should have a redeeming quality. Which also means, even a villain can change by the end of the story. And yes, this also includes turning into a really REALLY bad guy. Remember, change goes both ways. When done right, villains dominate the story and make it so much more enjoyable.

Of course, that’s all easier said than done, which is why we very often come out of a theatre thinking that the movie was mediocre at best, despite the excellent acting, remarkable direction etc. Or we end up putting a book down and never getting back to it. See, characters are the ones who take us by the hand, turn themselves into vessels, and transport us to their world. They’re the guides. It is their stories we experience. And it won’t matter if the world they take us to is the best and the events that take place are the most thrilling anyone has ever experienced. It doesn’t matter. If the vessel is not good enough, chances are we won’t enjoy the ride.

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I miss reading

Admittedly, the one I thing I’ve missed the most during the past few months when I started at my new job is being able to read as much as I used to. Between commuting to work (which luckily enough in my case is under an hour), spending eight hours there, attending to issues at home, spending time with the family, taking a little bit of time for myself (it doesn’t include reading or writing), and of course editing/writing, there’s hardly any time left to read during weekdays. To be honest, there’s hardly enough time to write. I have an app on my phone, a simple counter, where I’ve added the number of books I’ve read per year. I’m not a fast reader, but the average was 20-22 books. Now? It’s October and I just reached double digits. Yeap, it’s shameful.

What makes it worse is that what I’m reading is actually very interesting (rejoice sci-fi fans – it’s The Expanse series).

A few weeks ago, I mentioned my betas gave me their feedback on my latest cyberpunk novel (still not in shape for your eyes, I’m afraid). In their notes, one point stood out more than others: some scenes were repetitive.

*GASP*

I wasn’t prepared for this. But they were right, as always.

Last week, I started revising based on my betas’ feedback. Start with the big issues, I said to myself, move on to the smaller ones (like my innumerable typos, which caused my spell checker to crush – don’t laugh, because that’s what happens when you write sci-fi and you invent words, names, and terms). Bigger issues meant tackling those pesky repetitive scenes. By creating new ones.

So there I was, back on my ancient PC (thank you autumn for remembering to visit Greece and for allowing me to turn my PC on once more), trying to come up with a couple new scenes. And…

*crickets*

Seriously, nothing. If you want to know the truth it scared the $h!t out of me. Why couldn’t I write? My intention was to change the chase and escape scenes, since most of the betas comments about repetitive scenes was about them. It shouldn’t have been too hard, since the betas didn’t have a problem with the plot per se, which meant the beginning and the ending of those scenes were set. All I had to do was change the setting and I’d have a basic draft to work with. On the other hand, escape and chase scenes don’t offer much in terms of variety. Something bad happens, the hero has to run for his/her life, and either makes it or not. The only thing that can limit a writer is the world the writer has created for the hero. In other words, you can’t have a dragon saving the hero if you’ve created a hard sci-fi cyberpunk story and you haven’t included dragons in the first place. It took me two days to come up with an inkling of an idea. Which, of course,  in the end created a plot hole.


Luckily, the first idea created another, and another, and another, until the problem was solved, but I mean, come on. Two days?! For one idea? A bad one at that?!

Did I exhaust my storytelling skill after two books? Did the pool of ideas writers supposedly have dry out after two novels, a dozen short stories and poems, and a few hundred thousand written words?

No. well, I don’t think so, anyway.

What was the reason? I believe it was because I hadn’t been reading enough. I hadn’t had enough mental stimulation these past few months, even though I managed to save a couple of hours during the weekends for reading. It just wasn’t enough. Add to all this that I haven’t read a good cyberpunk novel for a long time to get inspired, you can see why there was a problem in my inspiration and idea reservoir.

Not to mention the creativity leech.

So, dear readers, fellow writers and other creative people, the answer to such problems is immerse yourself in the work of others. Learn from them, make them part of you, take them apart, study the way others created their stories, their songs, their painting, and recreate something unique, something that could have only been done by you. Allow the creator to transport you to new and wonderful places. Let the ideas of others inspire you. If you want to write, then you have to read a lot. I imagine the same principle applies to all other forms of art.

For the record, after I managed to tap into my inspiration pool, I wrote 2000 in three days. It’s not a lot, if you consider that I used to write 2000 words a day when I had the whole day to myself and nothing else but writing and reading to do, but it feels good nonetheless.

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Writing Prompt 47

Audrey laboured dragging the body from his legs. What is he made of anyway? she thought. Stone?

She stopped at the top of the stairs panting, and wiped sweat from her forehead. “Jonas!” she shouted. “You better get your ass here right now, boy.”

No reply.

She shook her head and lumbered downstairs, the body trailing behind her. Where is Death when you need him the most? she thought.

Her victim’s head thudded hollowly on the first step. And then he slipped her grip. The body rolled and bounced and tumbled down the stairs, until it came to rest at the bottom.

She folded her arms, tapped a finger on her lip, and nodded. ” Well, if my touch didn’t kill him, that fall definitely did.”

Jonas materialised out of thin air and inspected the twisted body. “Seriously? Another one? Trying to break a record or something?”

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Creativity leeches

Pointless grumbling follows.

Have you ever experienced the effect certain people, who I call “creativity leeches,” have on you? People who surround your every day life (co-workers, family members, friends, acquaintances etc) and who are so negative about and within their own perspective of the world (or the part of the world you and they coexist in) that dump on you their bile.  People that seem to be afflicted with a perpetual facial sourness and they want you to have it too. So much so that their efforts wear you down? I don’t mean people who will criticise your work (be it stories, music, movies or any other form of art) but people who will actively attempt to destroy your way of thinking, your perspective of life, people who will do their utmost to diminish you as a person, as an individual, your skills, your ethics, your intelligence. In short, the work you produce at its entirety. People who will look down on you from a self-perceived pedestal that for them seems like the top of their (tiny) world. People who actually think they have authority and some sort of power over you. You know the kind of people I’m talking about?

I’ve recently come across such a person (who, by the way, did not start off as such, but evolved into it – guess I failed to see the cocoon), and it amazes me how easy it was for them to create an environment where I can’t function or create, even when I’m away from them. It’s all part of me being worn down. Every time I attempt to edit my work, or write something new, or add a few new ideas in my ideas folder, I find myself drained, absorbed over too many inconsequential thoughts that make me feel like a stretched wrapping film before the first tear appears.

Part of the fault lies with me, since I allowed them a foothold into my head, so I too am to blame. I firmly believe that these people should be isolated and left on their own devices as much as possible. Some may say that I’m being too harsh. Perhaps. However, there are other people who surround both me and the leech, and they too feel this negativity. The funny thing? The leech’s behaviour affects them too. They too failed to notice the cocoon. Guess not everything coming out of cocoons is meant to turn into a butterfly. Apparently, some turn into blood-sucking leeches. Or in my case, creativity leeches.

End of pointless grumbling.

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Getting back on the short story submission train

Confession time folks. I haven’t submitted a new short story to any literary magazine since Xmas 2016. At that time, I submitted a cyberpunk short story which, as of writing this, will be the basis for a future novel. The story is still under consideration by that magazine (yes, it can take this long, and sometimes even longer), and it’s officially the story that has taken the longest to get a response. The fact remains though: since then, I haven’t submitted any other short story nor have I written a new one. Now, I’m about to submit two: a flash fiction one and a short one, both written more than a year ago.

The reason? I was too busy editing and revising my novels. Too busy submitting my first novel to agents. Too busy wrapping my head around promotion and marketing strategies for my self-published work. Too busy with a new job. Too busy with parents’ health problems. Too busy in general.

I started drafting both stories way back in 2016. Late spring, if my memory serves me. Nothing new since then. I don’t think I’m going through a dry spell (God, I hope not). It’s just that I’ve focused on longer stories than short ones. I don’t know if I’ll work on another short piece any time soon (at some point, I probably will, perhaps a teaser prequel to one of my novels), but for the time being I feel I should focus on novels. Especially now that I’ve had a taste of the turbulent waters of self-publishing.

So for me, submitting these two stories is a big deal. Wish me luck, folks. I’ve set the bar high for both.

Many thanks to all those who read earlier and badly written versions of this story, and provided me with precious feedback.

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Writing Prompt 46

“Okay, you convinced me. When do I start working?”
The man gave Simon a toothy grin and scratched his pointy goatee with an equally pointed fingernail. “We’ll get to that. First, the job’s perks. You will be in charge of your own self and no one can fire you. You get to travel the world. The -”
“I told you, I’m sold. When do I start?”
The man put out his hands and begged for patience. “The drawback is that you don’t have a fixed timetable. You go to work whenever you’re needed. You must always follow the day’s appointments. This is very important. You can’t miss any. Do you want to know what the job is?”
“Do I really get my weight in gold every month?” Simon asked.
“That’s right.”
“And the whole world will know of me.”
“Correct.”
“So, when do I start? Monday?”
“No, as soon as you sign.” The man took a piece of paper out of a pocket and pointed at the right spot with his fingernail. “Sign here.” When Simon took the paper, the man scratched Simon’s finger with the tip of his fingernail. A drop of Simon’s blood landed on the paper. “Never mind that. Just sign the contract, please.”
Simon did as instructed.
“Congratulations, Simon. You are now Hell’s caretaker. Have fun.”

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Getting back on track + poll

Quick reminder that the giveaway, Bad People With Guns, will end on September 5, so if you intended to read one of the available books but haven’t obtained one yet, you should hurry, especially if you’re a fan of thrillers, suspense, mystery, or crime fiction in general. Go here and download stories from Anna Willet, J. L. Stowers, Sara Cobb, and Simon Royle.

In other news, I’m happy to announce that the last of my betas got back to me. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to finish Through Stranger Eyes. In their words, “I haven’t had the chance to start it yet. Sorry, but I can’t do it.”

It happens. Life always gets in the way of things and sends our best intentions down the drain. That’s why it’s important to reach out to more than one beta reader, and to have a decent personal relationship with them, so that they don’t feel that they’ve put themselves in an uncomfortable or awkward position when they have to tell you, “sorry, I don’t think I can make it.” Remember, betas are hard to find, they want to help, and perform an important task for us writers for free. Cherish them and understand that they too lead demanding lives.

So, what this means is that as soon as I get back to my computer (still waiting for you, summer, to bugger off and let me enjoy some cool days), I’ll go over the notes the rest of the beta team returned (I was lucky enough to get (feedback from four people!). I expect to have a hard time going over one beta’s notes in particular, since they gave them back handwritten, which means I will have to transfer them into my digital copy. And I have their thoughts recorded on a couple of audio files, so I’ll have to transcribe them too. Which is good, ’cause I can’t make out most of their handwriting. Oh well.

This is one of those moments where I sympathise with all editors out there.

However, here’s the thing: the first thing I noticed, from almost all the betas who gave me feedback, was that they enjoyed one of my secondary characters more than the protagonist. In fact, they liked that character TOO much. I’m not sure if there’s an underlying problem with this. What I mean is, I’m not sure if my main character is badly written or if that secondary character is so dominant that overshadows everyone else in the story. If the latter is the case, I’d have to figure out a way to trim her dominance a bit, which I’d rather not do (the truth is, I too enjoyed writing her scenes). If the problem lies with my main character and he is badly written, then I have the feeling I’ll need to rewrite A LOT of my story in the next months.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever read a book that, to you, one of the secondary characters stood out far more than the protagonist? Did this bother you at all? I’ve made a poll for your convenience. I would appreciate it if you could share this with your friends, as this will save me not only time, but part of my sanity.

Bruce Campbell from Evil Dead 2

Writers answer here

 

Readers answer here

 

Thank you 🙂

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