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What Makes Characters Believable?

What makes our characters engaging to readers? The other night, I was discussing with Ashley Stubbs two books that I recently read at her recommendation. Both of us had found the second book to be less satisfying than the first. It all came down to character–the protagonist of the first book was engaging and sympathetic, while the second protagonist was boring. As we examined what made this the case, I realized that the character wasn’t believable because she was too perfect. She was not believable as a human being.

So what makes our characters believable?

First and foremost: Flaws

Ever heard the proverb “Nobody’s perfect”? This goes for characters as well. Perfect people are uninteresting. Characters need to have flaws and weaknesses. They can still be good, they can still be strong and powerful. Flaws can be internal–self-doubt, pride, oversight, fear. They can be physical, such as disability, infertility, appearance, gender. They can be situational, like a lack of education or a history of abuse. None of these things have to stop your character from achieving the things you set for them, but they help to create depth and reality that your readers will relate to.

The Internal Conflict

No one, and I mean no one, has perfect resolve. People decide to do things, but those decisions either come from a long period of research, contemplation and examination, and/or they are followed by periods of questioning and doubt. A character who quickly resolves to do something (ie “the right thing”) and goes forth to make it so without a shred of uncertainty is false. The reader, whether he recognizes it consciously or not, will not accept this as something real. Even a religious character who acts in faith chooses to behave that way, and chooses to ignore the uncertainty that arises. That does not mean the uncertainty ceases to exist.

Unique Characteristics

What makes this character different? What are her unique identifiers? Everyone has their own physical traits, habits, tics, preferences, mannerisms, catchphrases, etc. These can be everything from a character who always eats her M&Ms by color to a character who always seems to stand on his tiptoes because he’s self conscious about his height. My own friends like to keep track of my new “word,” because every couple of months I unconsciously start using a new word or phrase repetitively in daily conversation. These kinds of traits add flavor to your story, and they also add a layer of believability to your characters, because your reader can identify.

Avoid Extremes

Any time that you take these characteristics too far, you have passed beyond believability. We might believe that a crazy person starts singing every time they see a school bus, but that unique characteristic is not believable for a normal person.

As you create your characters, your best success will come by creating real people. Their circumstances may be extraordinary. They may have incredible tools or abilities. Perhaps, if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, your characters are not even human. It does not matter. We read stories to discover ourselves in them. In order to engage your reader, at the core, characters should be true, realistic reflections of people.

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