Writing Convincing Characters

I’m trying to figure out how to balance out everything I’m trying to accomplish.  I need to make sure I have time to crochet for Squee! Productions products and commissions, time to write blogs for all of you :), time to write my own material, time for work, etc etc etc.  It’s difficult, but I think I’m doing alright.

To the more important things…

I’ve talked about Mary Sues in the past, which are unconvincing characters.  I’ve talked about how to fix a Mary Sue – which is turning a poorly designed character into a better character.  But how does one write a convincing character from the start?

Character Planning Sheets

My biggest recommendation is doing a character planning sheet.  I’ve been doing this for the majority of my writing life, I think I might have started them when I was about thirteen or fourteen.  Of course, how I do them has evolved.  I used to have them be very superficial.
Example:
Character name: Salem
Age: 17
Hair: Red
Eyes: Gold

That would be all I would have to go off of for the character.  This clearly isn’t a very good way to determine a character’s personality.  But at the time, it allowed me to “see” the character, which then allowed me to better determine their personality.  That sounds a bit crazy.  Whatever.

When I hit late high school and college, I realized my method for character mapping was a little flawed.  Okay, a lot flawed.  The character’s physical appearance isn’t the highest priority in the slightest.  However, for me, characters still develop from an image I have in my mind.  This is what my character mapping changed to:

Example:
Character name: Alice Delany
Age: 25
Hair: rich mahogany
Eyes: golden brown
Basic personality: cold and calculating, soft spot for animals, ruthless in her actions, gentle, intelligent to a fault.

So now you get a few outlining personality quirks that you can keep in mind while you’re writing.  Giving her a few opposing quirks helps with the believability.  We know that this character is ruthless and cold, but still cares for something.  That makes her more rounded and believable.

Spectrum of Evil and Good

This is where a lot of beginning writers struggle.  I’ve seen a lot of protagonists that practically have halos above their heads and butterflies swarming them.  I’ve also seen a lot of antagonists that might as well be evil incarnate.  Sure, these characters butting heads make an interesting contrast.  But neither of these characters are convincing.  In my college writing classes we always looked at the “spectrum of evil and good”.  At one end, was good, the other evil.  We would discuss characters and determine where they would fall on the spectrum.  Every once and awhile, a person would vilify/deify a character too much and they would end up on one end of the spectrum.  Then we would balance the character out by giving flaws or redeeming qualities that fit with the character.

The best way I’ve found to deal with this is looking at your characters as though they are real people.  All people have flaws and redeeming qualities.  Also, looking at them as though they are real allows you to plan out their emotions in a more realistic way.  Flaws, redeeming qualities, and emotions are complicated and intertwined.  Remember, you want your character to be in the spectrum, not on the ends of the spectrum.

Making Sure the Character is in the Right Story

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it happens all the time.  Certain characters just don’t belong in certain stories.  When a character doesn’t belong in a story, the scenes involving this character will seem artificial and forced.  Once you become more skilled in crafting worlds and characters, you will instinctively be able to tell when a new character doesn’t belong in certain worlds.  When a new character hijacked my mind a few weeks ago, I created a new world for her, because she just didn’t fit in the universe I was currently working with.

A good way to see if your character is in the right story is to write a brief background story on the new character.  See if this backstory fits with the universe you were thinking of putting the character in.  If it doesn’t, don’t rework the backstory, just set the character aside.  The character will let you know where he/she belongs.

Things to Avoid

  • Entirely evil characters.  An entirely evil character will be boring.  Consider that the character will always choose the evil option.  Sure, he will shoot the main character without hesitation.  Sure, he will order an entire village destroyed.  The thing is, there’s no question about that, so its not interesting.
  • Entirely good characters.  Like an entirely evil character, an entirely good character will be boring.  The only difference is that the good character will always pick the good option.  Without the hesitation or question, it isn’t interesting.
  • Stereotypes and cliches.  Again, these get a bit boring.  There’s a reason why they’re considered stereotypes and cliches; and that’s because most people know what they are.  Of course, if you manage to turn it into something new and original, go for it!
  • Mary Sue and her brother Gary Stu.  I’ve mentioned Mary Sue before and as we’re talking about convincing characters, not crappy characters, you can assume that you should avoid Mary Sue and Gary Stu (and all their forms) at all costs.

In Conclusion

Writing a convincing character takes time and practice.  These are things that I’ve found that help.  What has helped you write a convincing character in the past?

Thanks!
~Laura

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One thought on “Writing Convincing Characters

  1. Pingback: Posts Revisited: Writing Convincing Characters | Rants from a Starving Writer

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