One of my favorite books when I started writing was Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon. Remember when I wrote about backstory and discussed how much was too much? This book is a perfect example of how you build backstory. We have all done the character sketch of our main characters. Often times much of this information never makes it into the novel. Why not? Think about it – remember what I said about too much information. Do not give your reader information overload. They will be so bogged down in information that the story will not move along evenly or worse yet, the reader will stop reading altogether because they have lost interest in the story.
So why do you need to know all of this information about your characters? You know the answer to this one. Go on say it now – to make your characters 3 dimensional! Exactly. So how do you build believable characters? After I read this book, I used the author’s inventory list to make one of my own. His is more geared toward the contemporary author, but a historical author could use it as well. There are 14 pages to his inventory list, but we will just use a few of them here so you get the general idea what I mean.
Name, age, height, and weight all seem like no-brainers, right? You would be surprised how many people forget their hero is 6’4” and then have the heroine staring into his eyes. The next no-brainers are hair, eye, and skin color. Once again, you cannot state your hero has mesmerizing green eyes in one part and then call them brown. The reader will pick up on this in a heartbeat. Consistency is key to keeping your reader engaged and interested. Body type is also important. Your hero cannot move gracefully like an African cat if you have described him as built like a prize fighter with large hands and a barrel chest. Get the picture?
A section I like is physical imperfections. What would your character like to change about himself? Let’s say he has a crooked nose from being broken in a barfight. He is always conscious of this fault and even thinks it makes him a bit ugly. On the other hand, the heroine can note how rugged it makes him look – even dangerous. Here is where an imperfection can add sexual tension between them.
I like the physical gestures. Women are notorious for these – the constant twirling of their hair or a distinctive raise of the eyebrow. Men have them as well, but for some reason, we are so preoccupied with other traits, we miss some of the subtle ones. For instance, your hero runs his finger along the edge of his suit jacket whenever he stands up. When he doesn’t do it, the other characters will take note of it and realize something is wrong. Ahhhh – are you getting the message here? See how something so innocent as a nervous gesture can heighten the mood in a room?
There is an entire page for schooling and further education. If you are writing a historical this information could prove valuable in a sticky situation. Let’s say your hero has learned Latin and no one else around him does. Suddenly they come across some relics with Latin markings. His knowledge is key to solving a mystery. But, let’s say the opposite is true in a contemporary – your hero has only been through high school. He is vying for a major job at his company but knows they want a college degree. Even though his experience makes him the better man, he might not get it. We need to sense his inadequacy to feel his pain when he does not get the job. Of course this leads us right in to experience. Our hero walks into a crowded ballroom in 19th century London. His skin is bronzed by the sun. How do the other characters see him? Do they look down upon him because of his suntan? Do they make snap judgments based on this physical flaw? Of course no one knows he is a lord but was forced into a naval subscription and just spent the last 6 months working on a ship, but now we have some backstory that will give your character something to overcome.
There is a full page on goals and needs. What are your character’s long and short-term goals? What are his long and short-term needs? This lead directly to your character’s motivations as well. Knowing this information is key to how your character will react in certain situations. If your hero is searching for the person responsible for sending him into the ship’s gallows those 6 months before, his needs must come before his goals. He needs to gain entrance into society, then he can face the person responsible for his misfortune and perhaps exact revenge. He cannot get into society until he obtains the proper clothing and gets past the butler. See what I mean?
The next three pages of the inventory have to do with the hero/heroine’s personality. There is a great section in the book about personality traits. Think about your character – is he an introvert or an extrovert? How will he react in a social situation depends on this. Does your character have any quirks which will give away his true identity to perhaps a family member or a dear friend who knows his sooooo well? Suddenly we have a situation on our hands. Our hero arrives at the party. No one should recognize him because his appearance has changed so much over the years. In walks his best friend and he is afraid of being found out. At the same time, he longs to go speak with him, hoping his friend might be able to help him out. Unless, his best friend is the very person responsible for his imprisonment. Then his sudden quirk might give him away. The same is true of any eccentricities. Perhaps our hero only picks up his plate with his left hand and always circles the edge of the plate with a spoon before he consumes anything. Today we would call it obsessive/compulsive but back in the 19th century, this would be an eccentric behavior most would overlook if you were wealthy enough.
I love the section on bad habits/vices. We all have them. Some of them are more obvious than others – smoking, drinking too much, swearing excessively. Some are more subtle because we tend to hide them. Still, these habits make your hero more distinguishable than other men in the room. They also would call attention to him or make people act a certain way when they see him. If he is a loud, obnoxious drunk, the hostess could be nodding to her servants to hide the whiskey and move all delicate glasswear to the farthest side of the table. When our hero falls down drunk on the floor no one is surprised. But imagine their surprise if he arrives sober and does not touch a drop of alcohol? Now, the attention is on him for a different reason. The same is true of admirable traits. Everyone adores this man, but for some reason he arrives at the party completely sloshed. What has happened to send this sensible man over the edge? The woman who adores him from afar longs to discover the truth and could possibly be placed in a rather indelicate situation because of his bizarre behavior.
Phobias, manias, painful memories, pet peeves, and social affiliations are all part of what makes your character tick. Some are more important to your story than others. The reason this inventory is valuable is because it allows you to go through it step by step and outline your character more thoroughly than you thought possible. Throw in a great mental disturbance and just see how your plot changes. Yes, all of these things plus political affiliation, hobbies, sports, favorite shows, meals, foods, etc make your hero and heroine more interesting. There are more, but I think you get the general idea of where this all leads – a more thorough understanding of your characters. Do this inventory for your two main characters and your story will take on new depths.