Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Your characters need to be real in a fictional world for your stories to connect with the readers. Readers need to either see themselves in the shoes of the protagonists or emphatise with them.
How do you depict the emotions in your characters come out so clearly? It feels like I know the characters when I read your stories, which is why I find them so heartwarming. An acquaintance asked me over the phone after having set up a specific time for this discussion.
Being a new writer still having miles to go with my writing, I was grateful for this love and flattered that someone considers me proficient enough to ask for tips for her own writing. However, for some time, I wasn’t sure what answer to give to the question. I am not a linear writer and don’t plan my writeups. I open a blank word document on my laptop and start keying in whatever comes to my mind in that instant. For example, I had planned to write a blog post today but didn’t know the subject till I opened the document and started to type.
That’s how it goes for my stories. “I let my characters talk to me instead of dictating to them how to go about living in their world,” was what I told my eager acquaintance.
And that is true, of the thirty-odd stories that I have written, only in one instance do I recall putting a plot beforehand. There too, I had written impromptu till about halfway and was stuck for a considerable point. That was when I wrote the plot and finished the story. Even though the story was published, I wasn’t too happy with the output and hence never tried it again.
How To Create Believable Characters
The question, however, stayed in my mind long after the conversation was over. I realised that my approach to reading and analysing the extraordinary and the mundane happenings around the globe through a writer’s lens did contribute to my character sketches. It is because I am a keen observer of life that my characters come across as people with real flesh and blood.
I have attempted to organise my musings as a writer into techniques of character building for the benefit of aspiring writers. Hopefully, the following methods will work as well for you as they do for me:
1. Visualise the character clearly in your head before you start putting pen to paper. What is the age of the character? What are his eccentricities? What type of house does he live in? What is his nature of employment? Who all are there in his family? What is his friend circle like? Form a clear picture in your mind before you put pen to paper. Ask yourself as many questions as you can about him before you go ahead with the story. Your character should be three-dimensional with depth and personality.
While this may seem daunting, if you keep at it, with time, it doesn’t take as long as it might seem now. Over a period of time, as I have become more regular with my writing, it takes me less than a minute to ask character questions and get my answers. I may not get all the answers at one go, but I proceed when I get at least half of them and uncover the rest of them as I go along.
2. Think and feel about the people behind any event that you read about. I am an avid reader and read two newspapers daily to start my day out of habit. My approach to reading has changed ever since I started writing. While I consumed the facts and information earlier, I now pay more attention to the human side of the event.
For instance, when I read about a building destroyed in an earthquake, I imagine what the people trapped inside would be feeling at the moment. While skimming through the news of parents protesting against fee hikes by schools taking online classes, I think about what the children facing this situation would be going through. My latest story- ‘Head Under Water’- resulted from my imagination of a helpless daily wage labourer in Mumbai trapped by Cyclone Tauktae and the consequent floods.
3. Fictionalise a real-life character. There have been innumerable instances where I have taken inspiration from my husband, relatives, close circle of friends, maids, and even a stranger I observed on the street to pen my stories. I have imitated the setting, background, dialogue, and mannerisms of someone I know and inserted them into my fictional world. In some cases, I have fused two characters I know to conceive my protagonist or antagonist.
I haven’t even spared myself in this regard; there is a bit of me in many stories that I have written. Curious to know which are those? Well, you may read my stories and try to find out for yourself! The bottom line is that art imitates life, and stories are no exception. If you permit life to inspire you, your writing will be believable.
4. Develop characters that reflect your interest or surroundings. You will spend plenty of time with your characters, so write ‘what you know about.’ You are a unique and exciting personality- use yourself to your advantage. If you are in government service who secretly aspires to be an actor, make those experiences, struggles, and aspirations shine forth through the voice of your protagonist, antagonist, or supporting characters.
For some of my stories, I have put to use my 14 years plus experience as a corporate professional. ‘WARNING! It is a Computer Virus,’ ‘The Other Side,’ and ‘My Heart Goes On’ are examples of my knowledge of the corporate world. Your characters will flourish in a familiar and realistic setting.
5. Make your characters vulnerable. No one is perfect. If you try to depict that the heroine of your story does not have any flaws, she will not come across as believable, and readers will not be able to relate to her. Whether it is in fiction or life, human beings have flaws. So unless you are writing a fantasy story about a superhero, your characters need to have human qualities.
That is not to say that all the characters need to be irredeemable- they need not come across as dumb or dull. Instead of extremes, make your characters toe the average line. That will make them authentic to the readers.
6. Use dialogues to build characters. This technique is beneficial when you don’t have all the answers about the characters. You then let the characters have a conversation with themselves and discover each other in the story even as they slowly reveal more about themselves to you. Pay attention to their speech pattern, words, jargon, and diction, which must be consistent across the story.
I have used this technique in my story ‘The Couple.’ I wrote this story in response to a prompt and didn’t even know the characters’ names when I started to write. If you have read the story, you will see that the names of the characters are revealed towards the end of the story. Readers tell me that this is one of my best stories to date.
Above all, emotionally invest in your characters. When you go ahead and try these techniques, you will find yourself writing powerful fiction even as a beginner. You are the creator here, and you can mould your creatures in the way you like. So go ahead, and exercise your power.
Do you know of any other character development tips and techniques that work for you? Would you mind commenting on my blog if so? I cannot wait to learn from you.