Writing a believable character is difficult, and as readers we want that believability to be right there on the page because there is nothing worse than wasting our time on boring characters, especially if we are going to spend the time reading a book. As writers, we should know that if we do not want to read boring characters than we should not write boring characters (this is true of your plot, too). So, for today’s post, I am going to offer a tip for creating more realistic characters that you can put to use when you write your next story.
Why interviewing your character builds nuance
Give your characters likes and dislikes!
You have probably heard this a few times as you have scoured the internet for decent writing advice, and as you yawn, consider this—you have probably read it that many times because it is solid advice.
Your characters must have likes and dislikes to be believable (verisimilitude).
As Purdue University states: “When writers talk about believability, they talk about whether the constituent parts of a character make sense and feel cohesive” (Purdue).
Likes and dislikes, much like desires and ambitions, simply adds nuance to your characters and these two opposite qualities can inform the reader of how your character responds to situations.
Indiana Jones hated snakes and therefore responded to them poorly
A good strategy to figure this out is to try an interview activity with your character. Simply put, get out a sheet of paper and write down a list of questions (there are plenty online if you need help), and then respond to the questions from your character’s perspective.
However, we must be a little careful with this piece of advice because it could enable some odd writing behavior (I think anyway). What I mean is: you do not have to don a funny cap and put on a fake mustache and pretend to be somebody else while answering questions, because, well, that is weird and not very helpful. Chances are, as a beginning writer, you will respond by using generalizations and stereotypes and that does more harm than good, as without decent research and thorough planning we are likely to fall back on tropes and archetypes, which can be poison for original fiction.
What you should do instead is think constructively about your character, whether that be your protagonist, antagonist, or any ancillary characters, regardless if they are static, dynamic, or just hanging out in a coffee shop in the background. To clarify: if you know your character grew up poor lived in a house with a bunch of siblings, what do you think would be their favorite food? Well, we can rule out hotdogs and macaroni and cheese probably, or, maybe they actually love that type of food for nostalgic reasons; and, maybe that sense of nostalgia has caused them to open a curiosity shop, which led them to find that mummified hand that helps your character discover some power they didn’t realize they possessed. Thus, we are building a character’s background by using either research into what impoverished Americans subsist on or from our own personal experiences. Whether you know it or not, that creates an interesting background for your character and can help the audience understand their goals in a more nuanced way.
Understanding your character’s background also implies that you might have to conduct some research if you are unsure about the specifics. That is, if they grew up in a metro area and you do not know anything about that then you look online or at your local library for resources that could help you understand their childhood with more precision. A realized character is going to have more of an impact on your reader and your story.
Writing believable characters is a tricky business, but there are strategies to conquering how you craft them and how readers interpret them. While this is only one piece to the puzzle, I believe this strategy can immediately make clear your character’s preferences in a variety of situations. Think about it: we often ask people we have just met what they like and dislike, so why not ask the people you are creating?
“Writing Compelling Characters // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab, owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/creative_writing/characters_and_fiction_writing/writing_compelling_characters.html.