Character building: how to write believable people
If you doubt your characters, your readers will doubt them too, so it is important to understand characters’ motivation and make their behaviour and speech convincing
Patrick McCabe, Kevin Barry, and Ross Raisin. Photographs: Cyril Byrne, Matt Kavanagh, Angus Muir
Asking someone to name their favourite author or book is one of those cruel, impossible-to- choose questions. For some, picking a literary character they’ve never forgotten is just as difficult. Whether it’s Dickens’s waifs, Lolita or Atticus Finch, a memorable character endures as much as a great book. Creating believable, three-dimensional characters is more important than making them likeable. So how do you bring them to life and convince a reader to believe in them?
In City of Bohane and Dark Lies the Island, Kevin Barry created funny, macabre and tragic characters. For him, it’s about understatement when bringing someone new into a story.
“I tend to physically introduce characters very quickly with just a few slashes of description,” he says. “Then I make their mouths move and see what comes out, and what they’re not saying is as revealing as what they are saying. All fiction and drama lies buried on the dark side of every passing moment of conversation. The secret power tussles and the little silent taunts that are contained in every conversation – this is one of your primary grounds as a fiction writer. I’m forever quoting Norman Mailer on this: ‘Whenever two men say hello to each other on the street, one of them loses.’ ”
The authority of the voice
If you doubt your character, so will your reader, so make them convincing in how they speak and act. Does your friendly farmer really quote Beckett all day? Is your villain really so unambiguous? Patrick McCabe believes it’s fatal for any uncertainty to creep in: “It’s all in the authority of the voice. Once the key of their voice is found, off goes the conductor [writer] and if he/she wavers, so do the readers.”
In God’s Own Country, Ross Raisin’s protagonist, Sam Marsdyke, is both comic and tragic outsider, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. Thinking about the characters a lot is essential, says Raisin. “It can be easy – especially when you’re not quite sure what the thing is yet – to think about the characters as a construct rather than losing yourself in them,” he says. “Playing around with characters and language is how I immerse myself in the work. Finding the point at which the language of the text resonates with the character and the point of view is when I know that I’m in it, even if not lost.”
Some writers advocate backstory checklists for their characters (age, occupation, appearance, and so on), but Dermot Bolger and Liz Nugent said at our first live event that they found this limiting. A character may not be allowed room to evolve if a writer is determined that they conform to a bullet-point list of the traits. All they need to be, says Barry, is “bitterly insistent”, and they can drive your narrative.
“He/she should be nagging at you for a long and unpleasant while, to the extent that you can hear and then render their voice at will,” he says. “It can be masochistic fun to have this sense of a monster lurking inside you screaming and clawing to be made flesh on the page. If you get this character out and established, they should be capable of dictating everything else about the story – how it sounds, what happens, how its prose works, everything.”
Characters can certainly be the epicentre of a book, but they are just one possible entry point for a story. Should character overshadow everything else, including tone, plot and point of view?
“Character, to me anyway, is everything,” says Raisin. “The different elements that make up a story can be discussed separately but in the creation of the thing they fuse together: character, plot and setting come together at the same time. It’s important to trust that if you know your characters very well then your plot will take shape out of this.”
Once you have a starting point for your character, examine what motivates them, and what will compel them all the way through the book. In his famous rules on writing, Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something – even if it’s only a glass of water.”
“If your character is genuine and alive on the page they will be naturally motivated and they’ll be looking for someone or some thing or some place,” says Barry. “What you must avoid is the appearance of effort – sentences should move breezily, as though on their own momentum, and it can take a long time and lots of drafts before your story has that sense of ease. A warning about many drafts – it can be dangerous to polish, hone and cut too much. You can end up taking all the vitality and prose out of your story.”
Raisin cautions that looking at every character solely via conflict can turn into an extended creative-writing exercise: “I find character motivation more often in ‘push’ factors than ‘pull’ ones. Many of my characters don’t fully know what they want but have something pushing against them: isolation; a loss of a sense of self and purpose caused by grief; or a sense that they should be a different kind of person – but don’t know who that person is.”
Motivation is also a way of keeping your character moving forward: McCabe says a character should need something, because “stasis can be fatal”.
GETTING INTO CHARACTER: WAYS TO BUILD CREDIBILITY
- Introduce new characters quickly with little detail. Get them speaking – to others or to the reader.
- If you doubt your character so will your reader, so make them convincing in how they speak and act.
- Think about your characters a lot and lose yourself in them.
- What motivates your characters? What do they want?
- Character back-stories can be helpful for some writers – write a list of who they are, where they live, their job, age, habits.
How to Write a Book continues each Monday. Next week’s instalment focuses on plot