The 3 D's of Developing Believable Characters
By Becca Rose
What is a common yet essential element to all stories? Characters. Whether human, animal, or a cognitive inanimate object, characters are in stories. Readers follow these characters, using them to sink into the fictional world the writer has developed.
When writing, it’s easy to focus heavily on your main antagonist and protagonist. However, having believable characters is a significant factor in storytelling, whether the character is the plot’s focus or serves a purpose in one scene. Even if your story is more plot-driven than character-driven, it won’t be believable if the characters we encounter are merely shells.
Beyond creating characters that are unique in appearance, writers must create characters with unique backgrounds. A character’s background explains their way of speaking, habits, and jokes. It also can explain the way they react to incidents in the story or interactions with others. While writers can’t delve into each character’s backstory, we can reveal pieces of a character in a few brief sentences, fleshing them out and making them tangible.
Dialogue is a simple way to differentiate your characters from one another. Accents vary per region. A character’s sentence structure depends on their upbringing and social status. Show the character’s personality in this dialogue. Do they use flowery language? Are they prone to humor? Do they drop the ends of words or stutter? This fleshes out the character and makes it easier for the reader to tell the characters apart. A wonderful exercise would be to take a scene from your story and only keep the dialogue. Can you tell which character is speaking?
Distinctive Traits help readers identify characters. We each have our own quirks that are unique to us: twirling hair when anxious, fidgeting, even squinting when deep in thought are normal behaviors in the people around us. Think of your own habits. What emotions are associated with them? These traits or quirks do not need to be on every page but keep them consistent, and the reader will not only understand it but remember it in association with your character.
Decisions are clearly essential to the plot of your story. When moving toward a goal, your characters will encounter obstacles along the way and their decisions when faced with those obstacles show who they really are. Even without knowing each character’s backstory, the reader will come to understand them or see the pattern in that character’s actions. This allows the reader to form their own opinions on characters in the same way they do with people in the real world.
Spend time with your characters. Beyond writing down some characteristics or putting together a spreadsheet of information, take those characters, put them in a scene and see how they behave. This can be a simple exercise; it may even be a scene that you have no intention of using in your story. If the writer knows their characters, sees them as real, then the reader will too. Give the characters life, and they will live on and off the page.
Becca Rose works in customer service by day and kills characters off by night. Every story needs a little darkness to make it more complex and interesting. She listens to music while writing, either classical, alternative, or 90s punk, and reads her work aloud to her four pets. They give excellent feedback.