Crafting Believability From the Inside Out
To suspend disbelief and surrender to a story, the characters have to be believable. That sounds simple enough. Yeah, right. I read books that advised me to create character sheets listing descriptive features and facts about each character. I did. And my characters came out two-dimensional.
A list of facts didn’t get me inside my character’s skin. I have to internalize who the characters are before their personalities shine through my writing.
A list of traits was only a description of the outside of a character. And while those details are important, I needed to understand my character from the inside out before I could write dialog and describe actions that were real for that character.
I was a film-a-holic before I started on my writing journey. From watching all those movies, it finally clicked that writers have to be actors, show a character’s feelings through their words and actions. But before I could do that, I had to understand who they were.
Again, “how do you do that?”
Discovering Your Character’s Quirks
Fast-forward a few years along my writing journey, after a lot of trial and error and input from some honest critique partners (thank you!). Here’s a few methods I discovered that help me “become one” with my characters.
1. What’s in a closet says a lot about character.
In a UC Extension workshop taught by Andrea Brown, yes the Andrea Brown of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, asked the class describe unique items that were in our character’s closet (baseball gear, ballet slippers, board games, etc). This type of list helped opened a window into my character, because the contents of their closet showed me “who” they were and “what” they cared about.
2. I tweet, therefore I am.
In my current project, my characters tweet to each other rather than text, because it’s free. To pull this off, I couldn’t make up Twitter handles without the danger of exposing actual accounts. So, I had to create an account for each character. This included designing profile pages that matched their personalities, and figuring out who they would follow, besides each other. All I can say is, “whoa!” Figuring out who someone follows on Twitter is a great exercise in getting to know someone. My characters became surreally real, especially when they began tweeting to each other.
3. Do, Be, Do, Be, Do.
“Doing” is the fastest way to learn something, for many of us. And the rule holds true for learning who your characters are on a personal level.
DISCLAIMER: I *only* dress up as fictional characters on Halloween. But even so, it’s an amazing experience. People treat you like you are that character. Seriously. I learned that you can go pretty much anywhere and talk to anyone dressed as Mary Poppins. I am not even kidding.
Relax, you don’t have to dress up like a character to experience who they are:
- Try the things your character likes doing: rollerblading, martial arts, dumpster diving *well, maybe not that one*
- Eat your character’s favorite foods: taste, smell, and touch elicit tangible feelings you can use to bring a character to life
- Frequent places your character would go: utilize atmosphere, sights, sounds, people, and even conversations you overhear to give depth to your character
4. Pushing the Extreme Method Envelope.
Some actors push the envelope of method acting, and *stay in character* even when off the set or stage. If you’re extreme enough, you take this approach to getting into your character’s head too. I haven’t tried it, yet. But you never know.
Trudy the-bag-lady was a life-study character Lily Tomlin later used professionally, as seen in the following clip from the 1980 Lily Tomlin Comedy Special, with guests Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.
How do you get to know your characters?
We all learn in different ways. What worked for you might help someone else crack the surface of their character so they can make them fully rounded. Caring is sharing!
More About Character
- Breathing Life Into Your Character: How to Give Your Characters Emotional and Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon, PH.D.
- Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors, by Brandilyn Collins
- Creating the Non-Stereotypical Character, compliments of Stina Lindenblatt
- Help with Character Development — a post with lots of links for a broad range of useful advice on character development, compliments of Elizabeth S. Craig.
- Characters that Surprise Us, compliments of Elizabeth S. Craig.
- Building a Better Character, my May 8th blog post