“Writing Believable Characters”
By Brenda Chapman
Human beings lead messy, complicated lives. To be believable, characters in novels need to mirror the conflicted personalities of very real people. Without ambiguities and nuances, a character runs the risk of becoming a one-dimensional caricature.
Creating believable characters can be accomplished by writing internal dialogue that shows the struggles going on inside. The reader is allowed into secret places that build understanding and often empathy even if the character chooses the wrong path. In the case of murder mysteries, the muddier the victim’s life, the more opportunity there is to reveal them as a fully formed and complicated person. This holds true for the killer as well. Skillful writing can lead readers into feeling sympathy for the villain while denouncing their actions.
Dialogue is a second tool in a writer’s kit that can make a character believable. A writer needs to be attuned to language patterns and expressions used by real people. The trick is giving enough dialogue to make a character come to life while writing concisely — distilling a conversation to information that moves a scene forward.
The decision to write a story in the first or third person has tremendous impact on revealing character. In the case of first person, the reader receives all the information filtered through the lens of the narrator. The character who is telling the story becomes like a friend confiding a narrative from their viewpoint. They can toy with the reader’s emotions and build a connection. This point of view is easiest for writing internal dialogue but can pose a challenge for developing secondary characters since readers do not have access to their thoughts and feelings in the same way.
Writing in third person lets the author into the internal lives of as many characters as they wish. Characters can give their thoughts and feelings about other characters and can give insight into their own motivations. This point of view can feel less intimate than first person, however. The reader is not privy to the internal workings of one character to the same degree.
Another way to make characters believable is to ground them in the routines and concerns common to everyone. A character might drink coffee in the morning, take the bus to work, eat tuna fish sandwiches for lunch, disagree with their boss. Every detail builds to create a whole person. The objective is to make readers believe the character is real and to care what happens to them.
I am always tickled to have readers talk about my characters as if they exist. Some tell me that they’ve stayed up all night reading because they need to know what happens to them. As a fiction writer, creating imaginary but believable people out of words alone and making readers feel something for them is nothing short of magical when all the pieces come together.
ABOUT BRENDA CHAPMAN
Brenda Chapman is a Canadian crime writer who has penned three series and a few standalone novels. She currently has seventeen books published since her first release in 2004, entitled Running Scared, which was the first of four books in the Jennifer Bannon young adult mysteries.
Brenda is now writing two separate series for two different publishers— the Anna Sweet novellas for adult literacy with Grass Roots Press; and the Stonechild and Rouleau police procedural series for Dundurn Press.
Her books have been shortlisted for several major awards including the 2006 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for Children (Hiding in Hawk’s Creek), two Golden Oak Awards for adult literacy (The Second Wife and The Hard Fall) and two Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards for novella and crime novel of the year respectively (My Sister’s Keeper and Cold Mourning).
The fifth in the Anna Sweet mysteries entitled No Trace was released in September 2016, with the sixth, Missing Her being released this fall. The fourth in the Stonechild and Rouleau series entitled Shallow End was published in March 2017. Watch for the fifth entitled Bleeding Darkness to be released in May 2018.
Brenda is a former special education teacher and senior communications advisor, now writing full time. She lives in Ottawa.
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