Creating believable characters


Well, I think it does seem to me that the only way you can create a character is through observation. I don’t think there is any other route. And what you observe is not quite like just meeting someone on a train, having a conversation and going away. I mean, really, a kind of adding up of people you notice. I think there’s something in writers of fiction that makes them notice things and store them away all the time.

Fiction writers remember tiny little details, some of them almost malicious, but very telling.

William Trevor, The Writer’s Chapbook

The majority of mainstream literary short stories are ‘character driven’ rather than ‘plot driven’. It is, therefore, important for writers to develop strong characterisation skills.

To a certain extent – this is a matter of practice and reading. You can learn much about characterisation from the work of published writers.  It is good to examine how they have created ‘real’ characters which come alive on the page. This is what all fiction writers must try to achieve and it takes considerable skill. The time frame for a short story is brief and there simply is not enough space for lengthy physical and psychological descriptions. Like all forms of writing, this technique can be achieved and sharpened by practice and exercise.

It is virtually impossible to create believable characters in fiction unless you know yourself very well – your strengths and weaknesses, foibles and failings. Even though you may never write about yourself in absolute truth – that would be a form of autobiography – it is necessary for every writer to be aware of his or her own humanity, in every respect, both good and bad.

Two aspects of a character

I consider myself to be a patient and understanding person, especially where my daughter is concerned. But right now, I am at a crossroad and don’t know which way to turn. Left or right, that’s the problem. It’s always been a problem for me. Left or right. Yes or no. I try to be fair, but the trouble is, I always see the other person’s point of view. Especially my daughter’s. And about this staying out till all hours, well, I think eleven o’clock on a Friday night is pretty reasonable. After all, she’s only fifteen. A mother has to be so careful these days. I couldn’t bear for anything…awful to happen to her. She’s such a lovely girl. I do wish she wouldn’t use that black lipstick though.

In the above piece the reader learns a lot about the type of woman the ‘mother’ is. Now, the writer ‘shifts’ into the head of the daughter in the piece. See if you can detect another interpretation of the mother’s character.

She’s a real drag, my mum. Always picking at me for the slightest thing. Nothing I do is right, as far as she’s concerned. And the clothes she buys for me. Yuk! Colours you wouldn’t believe. Aqua and shocking pink. Honestly, sometimes I think I must be adopted. She has absolutely no idea how I feel. About anything. No use talking to her. She goes on for days about the danger of this, the risk of that. It’s not as if I’m a kid anymore. I’m sixteen next week. Everyone else stays out until two in the morning. If I get in at half past eleven, she’s practically got the police dragging the river. Hopeless.  A real drag. No. Worse than that. A dragon. Dragon Lady, that’s what I call her. Behind her back, of course.