How to Make Your Characters Believable
by James R Johnson
When I was a baby, the movie Jaws was in theaters. My parents couldn’t find a babysitter so along I went. The film is suspenseful and gripping. But it seems that the audience of that particular showing got more than they bargained for. As a baby, I stood on my mother’s lap, clapped and cheered ever time the shark ate someone. I was a twisted child. I identified with the shark.
This is a classic film with many classic scenes and lines. One such line involves Roy Scheider’s character Chief Brody saying, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” This was right after we see the shark for the first time. And more importantly, Chief Brody sees the shark. What makes this line so classic?
Characters that are believable leave an indelible mark on an audience. They are accepted and embraced by moviegoer and readers alike. The litmus test of a believable character is reaction. What does a character do in response to stimuli? A character who stares down a twenty-five foot Great White shark and shrugs it off without fear is not believable.
But there is more to this than authentic reactions. There are qualities in people, many qualities, many traits. A well rounded character is a collage of traits that makes them unique. Look at the villain who cares about beauty of life or the hero who has some struggle personally. We, like the characters we search for, have a myriad of traits. Some are good and some are bad. And that is the key to a believable character. Someone who displays many qualities, is grounded in those qualities, will react with a believable response.
To get the process rolling, let’s take a look at a few questions designed to get the character makeup kick-started. First question: What does the character want? This could be something as simple as peace and quiet or as complex as obtaining a specific item. The idea here is to find what drives that character, not find out what they want for lunch. This goal, this passion is the basest desire they have. This encompasses their lives. This will help you see what the character is moving toward.
Next question: Why will this goal satisfy the character? Does the character want peace and quiet? Why? Is it because they have lived a life of war, military service? Dig deeper, what is it about peace and quiet? Is it because they feel like they have given enough, it is time to retire? A realistic reason to obtain the life goal will help you see why a character is driven.
How does the character go about reaching the goal? In the case of peace and quiet, does the character withdraw from everyone around him? Does the character fight through obstacles? The process by which a character moves toward their goal is as unique as the person themselves. Each step leads the character closer or further away from that goal. This will help you see how the character understands the world around them.
Finally, how does the character measure success? Is this character satisfied that they are moving toward peace and quiet or are they only truly happy when they have attained it? The perception of what constitutes success defines the character’s commitment. This will help you see the determination of the character.
Take all these answers and formulate a character that has a past, who wants a life goal, whether they know how to get it or not, and reacts to life like you do. This is the beginning of creating a believable character. Finesse and polish your character by talking to them. I know it sounds cliché, but it works. A believable character will know how they will respond if you ask them. Just like Chief Brody, they will reveal a real person.
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Genre – Urban Fantasy
Rating – PG13
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