February 10, 2011

Writing Believable Characters - Bonnie Way

In 2000, just after I discovered and joined ICWF, my grandma mentioned to me, "There's a writer at our church. Maybe she could give you some advice." She introduced me to Cynthia Post, who, it turned out, was also an Inscriber. We were able to meet at the Fall Conference 2000 (my over-protective dad let me go partly because Cynthia would be there to watch out for me) and in the next few years, Cynthia answered many of my questions by letter.

She passed away a few years ago after a battle with cancer. Some of her poems appeared in Inscribed and I still have one of the novels she wrote and self-published. She was also a talented artist. Recently, as I was going through one of my writer's binders and trying to organize, I found some of the letters that she wrote me. I thought I would share her advice on "Believable Characters" here.

Believable Characters

"A manuscript that lacks realistic characters is no more than a bunch of words."

That is a direct quote from Colleen L. Reece, who has published more than 20 novels and numerous short stories and is an instructor for the Writer's Digest School Short Story course.

Characters are the magic formula, yet they are often overlooked. If readers can't love, hate, or despair with the people who walk the pages of your novel, or short story, or for that matter newspaper article—all of the fancy writing will go for naught.

Characters must become real to you, the writer, or they cannot possibly become real to your reader. Can you allow them to become so real that they occupy your space—take on such a dimension that you can feel, see, smell, and think like they do?

You no longer have to ask yourself how they might react to a particular situation—you know. Writing becomes consistent, and much easier. You are no longer having to manipulate your characters, hoping each character is reacting correctly to the personality you have given them.

In a novel or short story your characters can become more appealing, more despicable, more understanding or understandable.

The best way I can suggest digging into each character—at least those that matter to you—is to set up a character chart for each one. Now don't panic—it will take a few days, or maybe longer to fill in all the gaps. You may ask why do all the details. "Who cares about all this stuff. I'm not going to use it in my story."—Is that your reaction? Why should you care?

No, you won't use all the "stuff" in your manuscript but you can't get to know your character if you don't know his/her history—what makes him what he is, and how he reacts to certain things. Ask yourself "why."

It is a lot easier to answer "what if" when you are writing if you know "why."

~ © Cynthia Post, September 1994

Think back over the books you've read. What characters do you remember? What characters did you love or hate? What made them so loveable or despicable?  Have some characters made you wonder why they would do something?

~ © Bonnie Way, aka The Koala Bear Writer


  1. This is excellent advice. I do this all the time - take the time to create elaborate back stories and character outlines for each character, even if I don't use all the info. It is necessary to know what motivates your characters to behave and react a certain way in order for them to become believable.

  2. Appreciate this very much.

  3. Wonderful advice! Thanks for sharing it with us, Bonnie. One finds a lot of treasures when trying to tidy up - right?

  4. Bryan Norford10:08 am GMT-7

    You remind me why I believe the Bible--the people, particularly the patriarchs are no cut-out cardboard characters.
    They have the same frailties we all have, and I recognize myself in them.
    Perhaps another way of creating real characters.

  5. So true, Bonnie. I was thinking about the book I'm reading now - "The Lucky One" by Nicholas Sparks. I just started, but I've noticed that often times his characters are ordinary people in ordinary settings and maybe that's what I love about his books. I can relate. And yet there's something 'bigger than life' about each one.
    Pam M.


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