Creating Believable Characters
By Suzanne Williams
There are three keys to creating believable characters, characters a reader desires to know more about and cares for. The first key is emotion. A character’s emotions create a reader’s emotions. The second key is creditability. How true to life is that character, and can the reader identify with him or her on a personal level? The third key is what I call the “male or female factor,” and I will explain that in a moment.
The character’s emotions are what draw readers into a story. In the following paragraphs, the main character, an Irishman named Michael, for multiple reasons cannot consummate his marriage with his wife. One evening, he kisses her and it sends him over the edge.
“Hands shaking, senses convulsing, Michael collapsed against a tree. What had happened?”
“His head spun, and the moment repeated itself, the sweetness of her mouth, the supple feel of her skin. He squeezed his eyes shut and floated helplessly skyward and back to earth on a swollen wave of sensation. He would have her; he would touch her again.”
“His eyes flew open at the vivid image of thirst and yearning quivering before him. She returned his feelings at last. But for his escape, they wouldn’t have stopped.”
Michael’s emotions come into the story through the use of powerful words like “shaking, convulsing, sweetness, supple, floated [and] swollen.” Now, make note that the only terms used to indicate any body parts were “mouth,” “skin,” and “eyes,” harmless enough terms, so it is the choice of adjectives that let you know he’s struggling and exactly how he feels about her.
When working with a character’s emotions, consider what the purpose of the scene is and how you feel when you read it. If you’re emotional, often the reader will be as well. And here’s something to think about. When creating emotion in a scene, I tend to go where I am uncomfortable. I have found that playing it safe leads to a boring scene.
This thought leads me to credibility. Credibility is that factor that makes a character a real person. In the same scene above, Michael, a twenty-year-old male, has fallen in love with his wife. His problem is he didn’t realize it was easier when she wasn’t returning his feelings. Now that she is, he sees the struggle in himself.
Thinking like a young man of that age and all the factors that led up to this moment are what made me write the scene as I did. I wanted him to have the same battle with his flesh that a man that age would have in the same situation.
Credibility comes into play in many other ways and with many other scenarios. Author Peter Levell once told me, “Never have two cowboys sharing a cinnamon role in a café.” I have never forgotten that advice because it holds to credibility. Two cowboys are not going to do something of that nature, and even if I write such a scene, the reader won’t believe it. I once read a western where the hero was dashing off to catch a criminal with a sandwich in his hand. Uhm. I don’t think so.
Now, this leads me to point number three – the “male and female factor.” I am opposed to males who speak and think like females. I’m sorry, but a man in love with his wife doesn’t want to hold her hand. He is a man, so he’ll think like a man and have the desires of a man. Similarly, a female isn’t going to deal with the same situation in the same way. When Michael’s wife approaches him later in this scene, she hasn’t a clue why he’s acting that way.
“She’d watched Michael for days, memorized his every movement, his mannerisms, until they were as familiar as her own. She saw how he tilted his head when he teased her, how the muscles in his neck flexed when he was upset. She heard him say he loved her, felt it in his gestures, and knew it when he didn’t speak. Yet to have him flee sent her spinning.”
“Isn’t this what he wanted? He wanted her to love him. Now that she did, he backed away?”*
Notice, how female she’s being. She’s spent time watching him, noticing all the funny little twitches or habits he has. What wife hasn’t done that? I could make you list of my husband’s quirks. Also note, it wasn’t enough that he’d told her he loved her, she expected more from him. This is decidedly female, and even more so when she is clueless as to why he’d run off in the first place.
I challenge the idea that the characters must be devoid of thoughts and feelings and a couple cannot show they care for each other (within Christian guidelines) without it becoming taboo. This type of writing leads me back to the “vase of flowers” concept where children are conceived by some mythical moment and not because the husband wanted to be with his wife. In this same vein, I have read some fabulous stories full of emotion and real-life characters that barely had kissing in them, and yet I knew how the man felt about her and how she felt about him.
Stories are all about words, and an author’s choice and placement of those words are what gives the characters life on the page. And that life is what keeps me reading and makes me relive certain story scenes again and again after I close the book. It is also what keeps me writing – that knowledge that these people could have existed and would have behaved like that. And I like think it is that certain thing which keeps readers returning to my books.
(Unedited story excerpts are from Love & Redemption by Suzanne D. Williams to be released March 1, 2013.)
Suzanne D. Williams is a native Floridian, wife, mother, photographer, and writer. She is author of both nonfiction and fiction books. She writes a monthly column for Steves-Digicams.com on the subject of digital photography, as well as devotionals and instructional articles for various blogs. She also does graphic design for self-publishing authors.