Tweet chat 7th May 2021 Writing Memorable and Believable Characters

Pete Linforth Pixabay

Participants: Kathleen Marple Kalb, Maria Johnson, Sandy Stuckless, Gerald Hornsby, Anita Belli, Chris Towndrow, Beth Hudson, Susie Kearley, Leah Bailey, J.D. Edwin, Victoria Landis, Jonathan Koven, Bradley Galimore, Cheryl Hoggins, Cheryl Whiting, Deborah Klée

Please introduce yourself by telling us your name, where you come from, and something about the protagonist in your WIP or last story.

Leah: Hi I’m Leah, originally from US now in London. I’m a published poet and English teacher who will one day finish writing that fantasy novel on my desk… between poetry projects and teaching terms. My protagonist is villager that discovers her world is not as small as she thinks it is, and she has choices to make that will help or hinder saving her people and those she encounters from forces that want only power and destruction.

Gerald: Hi Deborah! I’m Gerald, I’m from Birmingham, UK, living in Essex. My protagonist is an ex-journalist. And part-time sleuth. His name is Jerry Sanders. He’s in his early 50s. He lives in a seaside town called Harcourt Bay.

Beth: What better sleuth than a journalist?

Gerald: Haha! I thought so. It needed to be someone who had contacts with the police, but wasn’t directly connected with them.

Beth: Hi! I’m Beth Hudson. I come from the middle of the USA (Iowa) and write fantasy short stories and novels. My WIP is a sequel to my previous book, so same MC. Traedis is a young bard who has been appointed king of her country by the gods. She needs to reform it.

Anita: Afternoon all; Anita checking in from sunny Essex Coast UK. My character #RubySixpence comes straight out of magical realism. She was born on a leap day and ages 1 year in 4. In exchange for this gift, she must play cupid in the lives of reluctant lovers …

Deborah: Hi I’m Deborah from North Essex UK. My protagonist is a magician’s assistant.

Susie: Susie from Buckinghamshire. David dreamed of saving lives, but the new drug he created paved the way for a new pathogen to thrive. The result: an apocalyptic pandemic novel. 

Sandy: Hello everyone! I’m Sandy, Tweeting from Ontario, Canada! My protagonist is a car thief and computer hacker

Kathleen: Hi, Deborah! I’m Kathleen, I’m from Connecticut in the US. I write historical and contemporary mysteries. Current WIP is a new idea with an MC who is a silent movie actress. She’s the mother of a teenage son, with a secret smoking habit, and just a bit of snark. She’s the smoker — and actually, that little habit led me to her attitude and a lot about her!

Chris: Hi all. Chris from the London ‘burbs. My protagonist, Earl, is a 47yo carpenter in 1878 Arizona. He can also play the piano.

Gerald: I love the hobbies that some characters have. It provides depth to them!

Chris: That’s turned out to be a great part of the motif too. I wanted him to have something which raised him above a grouchy introvert and made him attractive. It fits in with the use of hands – sign language, carpentry, blacksmithing throughout the book.

Beth: It sounds to me like you’re working with a theme, and writing him from the inside out. I love that.

Deborah: Hi Chris. Interesting choice of time period. A challenge to write I should think.

Chris: Definitely. I chose it as it’s around the birth of ASL, which is key to the book. The research was fun. In 2004 when I wrote the original screenplay, I taught myself the ASL alphabet. (sign language)

Bradley: Hi, my name is Bradley. I’m originally from New Orleans, but living in NYC. The protagonist of my current work #LENNY is set to explore Mars and describe it in poetry. 

Victoria: Victoria Landis, originally a Jersey girl, now a long-time Floridian. (I take no responsibility for Flori-duh) MC: Mallorie – 16 and a servant in a prosperous Lord’s house in 1400s Toulouse, France.

Jonathan: I’m Jonathan, originally from NY, now in Philly. This isn’t my LAST story, but it’s the last BIG one I wrote. Two MC’s, a wistful American teenager named Aster, and Yuki, a survivor of the atomic bomb. They both yearn for the past, but for clearly different reasons.

Maria: Hi, I’m Maria! Sorry I’m late but here now I’m based in NW England, near Manchester. My MC of my 4th historical fiction novel is Imogen, set in the same series as the previous three but with a different MC. My previous MC Daniel chips in a bit, too.

J.D. Hi Deborah! My MC lives on a quiet, remote planet, in a quiet, uneventful town. She starts out in adolescence but progresses into young adulthood, where her flights of fancy lead her into a rather disastrous adventure.

Who is your favourite fictional character and why? What makes them memorable?

Sandy: This is a tough one. I like characters that have a little ‘bad’ in them. Rebels, anti-heros. Mat Cauthon from Wheel of Time comes to mind.

Beth: I’m not sure I have a single favorite. Corwin of Amber is definitely up there (Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber). As a child, I identified strongly with Meg Murray from “A Wrinkle in Time” and Taran from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Oh yes, and add Lord Peter Wimsey to the mix.

Gerald: Since I like crime, I try to steer away from stereotypes (like pulp fiction PIs). But I do love Columbo. He’s a clever, and fascinating, character.

Kathleen: I LOVE Columbo! We still watch it on one of the classic TV channels!

Beth: Columbo was awesome! I loved the fact that he put on such an inept persona in order to disarm others. And Peter Falk really brought that idea to life.

Gerald: He was always looking inside his pockets for something or other. And the little tic he had: as he was about to leave, he’d put his cigar-holding hand to his head, and say “oh, one more thing…” just as the suspect was breathing a sigh of relief.

Susie: Ooh not sure. Superman’s up there somewhere.

Anita: Me too, Susie! And Harry Potter of course!

Deborah: So many it’s hard to choose. Male – Shardlake from C.J. Sampson series. Woman – Pippi Longstocking!

Anita: Has to be Vianne Rocher in Joanne Harris’ Chocolat

Bradley: Hmmmm. That’s a hard one. I’ll go for a villain and say: @JRRTolkien Smaug from #LOTR The Hobbit. He was witty, sarcastic, charming and clearly suffered from delusions of grandeur in the best way possible. 

Kathleen: I love a lot of mystery series main characters, but probably the top for me is Amelia Peabody, in Elizabeth Peters’ historical series. Part of that is the fact that the series went on for so long — we got to see her, and all of the characters, grow and evolve

Bradley: Writing characters with a long stand-alone series is hard so this is interesting.

Chris: Not a clue! All I can judge by are the ones which made an impact and inspired me to write characters with similar traits / challenges / looks – mostly movie characters. e.g. William Munney in Unforgiven, Dorinda Durston in Always.

Jonathan: This is a TOUGH one. Gonna have to limit this to fictional lit–no TV/film. I have a few lol. Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules. Frankie in The Member of the Wedding. Joana in Near to the Wild Heart. Simon in The Tanners. Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist. As to why… I don’t know! They all touched my heart somehow. I’m a sucker for a wistful, hopeful, conflicted fictional character (and clearly a fan of the bildungsroman genre, if you couldn’t already tell).

Deborah: That combination is a killer.

Maria: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (you may have guessed this already, Deborah!) She is one of the strongest, passioned and authentic characters I’ve ever read/seen. I love the transformation of her arc and the depth of her convictions, which were very influential to me.

Leah: I’d have to go wih Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper or Princess Eilonwy from The Pydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. I fell in love with those books and read them till I was sellotaping the pages in. I still revisit them and they still move me to joy and tears. I think what makes them so memorable is they were relatable heroes, flawed but trying to do their best for those they loved. Not fairy tale perfect but admirable loveable, hateable… I wanted to BE them, be that determined, resilient, act as they did in adversity.

Syaibatul Pixabay

What makes a character unbelievable? Does it matter?

Maria: I think the character has to make actions and be believable within their own world/stories. So e.g. with the Marvel universe, a lot of the characters do things that are pretty miraculous, but it makes sense to the viewer/reader because the characters are believable.

Sandy: Too pretty/too ugly, too good/too evil. Anything on the extreme ends of the spectrum is not going to work. Even in a fantasy setting, I need a character I can relate to and have some emotional investment with. If I can’t connect, I don’t care. 

Gerald: I think it matters a lot, if you want your readers to connect with them. I think the whole story needs to be plausible to stop readers disconnecting. This doesn’t seem to matter so much in TV or film.

Bradley: Very well said. I’ve walked from so many stories/shows for this reason.

Beth: That’s a really good point. I come mostly from a writing background, and not a cinematic one, so I tend to want characters who I can identify with internally, but in movies, it’s pretty much external.

Deborah: I would love to understand why we accept unbelievable characters on screen but not in books. Anyone got an explanation? Maybe we expect more from novels because of the time we invest in reading.

Beth: Even a short book has to be seriously condensed to fit a movie, because there’s far more packed into one. I’d say that it is looking in versus looking out. In a book, no matter what POV it is, the reader is privy to thoughts and feelings of at least the MC(s). In movies/TV we’re watching from the outside, so everything has to be conveyed through an extra layer of story.

Gerald: I think this is the right thing. Moments of implausibility flash by on the screen. But I spot ’em! My word, I spot ’em.

Susie: Poor description or contradiction in the text, perhaps? You’d hope a skilled writer could make almost anything seem believable if the story is immersive enough.

Deborah: It is interesting that it doesn’t matter on the screen. As writers we need to be aware that there are different rules or reader responses to screen and book.

Sandy: I think a lot of it there’s less of an opportunity to develop character on screen and you have the explosions and visual effects to distract you from it. Car chases, gunfights, and naked butts rule in the visual medium.

Gerald: Our TV often has me shouting at it, saying: “That wouldn’t happen”. TV crime plays fast and loose with plausibility.

Cheryl: Same for medical drama’s. I can’t watch. They always have the radiographs and scans upside down, wrong way round.

Maria: My dad was a doctor before he retired and he cannot watch House for that reason he finds it too implausible. He says an extraordinary case like that would happen to one hospital in like 20 years, not in the same department every week 

Beth: Things that make a character believable: weaknesses. Insecurities. Conflicting motives (who doesn’t have those for real?). Multiple interests. Unexpected strengths. Missteps. Consistency, even in the things that may be inconsistent.

Bradley: Great points. I think very often people are so excited to tell the story that they don’t consider the pathways that bind it together. I always refer to it like a city. The streets have to connect in enough places.

Anita: So true Beth- I couldn’t have put it better! Which means that if a character is lacking these ingredients, they are at best two-dimensional if not unrealistic.

Beth: Which is why wish-fulfilment characters don’t work well.

Kathleen: Yes! It’s something I think a lot of writers do early (I sure did) and work past it.

Chris: Acting out of character from what has been previously revealed or demonstrated. My editor pointed this out about one of the characters in my #WIP, so that needed fixing or excusing.

Beth: That is so important, because suspension of disbelief defenestrates when the characters suddenly start doing something completely out of character.

Bradley: Interesting. Consistency issues are something I discuss with people I edit for but I never “actively” think of it as a situation in which a character becomes unbelievable.

Leah: I find characters unbelievable if they are overly simplistic… no one and nothing is all good or all evil. Flaws are what make us relatable, human, even in a fantasy or with non-human characters, emotional/ empathic links need to be made.

Beth: Even more in fantasy in some ways, because it needs to be solidly grounded in real things in order for suspension of disbelief to apply for the unrealistic things.

Jonathan: Flat characters are unbelievable. And it definitely matters. Even villain characters deserve nuance, layers upon layers of motivation, psychological grounding, their pasts, their ticks, their joys, their fears, their friendships, relationships, lack thereof…

Gerald: I really believe this. Our behaviour and motivation are often informed, at least partially, by our upbringing, the environment we lived in when we were young, and how we interacted with people and the effects that had.

Bradley: Lack. Of. LOGICAL. Depth. Very frequently characters and tropes support a specific “type” of “average guy” who does illogical things and becomes a hero with well qualified people working under them. (Ex: the show Terra Nova). I don’t support NPC “hero” stories

How do you create a well-rounded, three-dimensional character?

Maria: Have them be flawed human beings. Mixed motivations, getting things wrong, layered backgrounds, complicated relationships to other characters, not always being sure of their own actions, etc.

Anita: Make sure they are not perfect; they need flaws, backstory and preferably an unusual job or hobby. They also need to be relatable to the reader, so even if they are not ‘good’ characters, they need to ‘save the cat!’

Kathleen: Totally agree! It’s really important to make them relatable in some way, even — maybe especially — if they’re extraordinary. Everybody doesn’t care what a diva does all day, say…but everybody understands someone who works hard to 

Gerald: Exactly. We all have flaws and quirks. These are minor aspects of character, and shouldn’t distract from their main character arc. And try to avoid clichés, like the cop who drinks too much, or who shouts at people all the time.

Beth: I think you can do a character with a cliche if you play with it and change it up a bit. The cop who drinks too much, but who also volunteers at the animal shelter, for instance, and is openly sentimental. It’s fun to play with cliches at times.

Gerald: Yes. And it’s surprising for the reader, too. It’s the whole yin and yang thing, that people aren’t all good or all bad. The better you know your characters, the better you can fill out their character for the readers

Sandy: Backstory is paramount here and something I still struggle with. Your characters have to have a life outside of the story you’re telling. A few memorable events from the past can really inform how your character behaves in the present.

Jonathan: Fall in love with them a little. Walk in their shoes. They are the way they are for a reason, always.

Deborah: I love my protagonists but they are often misunderstood by others.

Jonathan: Yes! And often misunderstanding their own selves. I find a lot of my stories gently guide these characters toward these self-realization (or perhaps, guide them away).

Bradley: Every character has to at bare minimum answer the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why) when a reader interacts with them. When I create these characters, I ask how can I answer these questions in a way the reader does not typically hear or has not yet encountered.

Beth: I try to get to know them. Most of them have at least sketchy backstories. When I have them do something, I think about how they would do it, given their personality and background. I try to “hear” their dialogue, so it sounds different from other characters.

Chris: I find dialogue key to my writing, and I also ‘hear’ it, which I think is important when there are mannerisms, different educational levels etc. Because I’ve written for the stage as well, getting things to sound right has been part of my journey.

Deborah: Interesting that you have written for the stage. That must help you with dialogue.

Chris: Absolutely, and I’ve been told it’s one of my strengths. Because I started out (in earnest, anyway) writing screenplays and stage scripts, visualising the scenes and moving things forward through dialogue have underpinned my style.

Deborah: I write long hand with the characters telling me all about themselves. I use The Hole in the Soul (explanation at end of notes) method to identify their weakness – the one they are aware of and the one they are not. Fears. Anxieties etc.

Leah: Goals and motivation are key, why are they acting as they are? What do they want and value in life? What gives them the ability to affect change or conflict? Why are they special or not special? Or is it’s just they are in the right place at the right time? Goals and motivation are key, why are they acting as they are? What do they want and value in life? What gives them the ability to affect change or conflict? Why are they special or not special? Or is it’s just they are in the right place at the right time?

What is your protagonist’s: Weakness? An unusual character trait? Distinguishing feature?

Maria: Probably her own uncertainty/disconnect with others. Imogen is a princess who might lead her people one day, but as much 4th novel is set about 15 years after the events of my 3rd novel, she struggles to relate to her people and often feels bitter because of that.

Leah: Her empathy, her ability to know/understand people better than they know themselves, to help them see how much they have to offer, though not always able to see that in herself, she has a somewhat crippling self- doubt, and a tendency to be blind to betrayal.

Jonathan: Aster grew up privileged, sheltered, as many born and raised white Americans. Its Memorial Day. At 18, she’s old enough to see the paradox, the coverups–the casual injustices that allow her identity to exist. So ,she starves herself, lost in need of a simpler past.

Yuki is lost in a lifelong grief for her sister, claimed by the A-bomb, for her childhood home in Hiroshima. It’s Memorial Day. She remembers the past, mourns for it, and upon meeting young Aster, she encounters what becomes an echo of that awful day from long ago.

Anita: I think #RubySixpence believes she is infallible and as such, gets herself into trouble occasionally; like when she whistles up a storm to keep the hero from leaving, but it backfires and floods Suffolk…

Beth: Traedis is utterly terrified of her uncle (the antagonist). Whenever he gets involved in something, she freezes. She also loves him, because he was more of a father than her real father. Unusual character trait: I don’t know if it’s unusual, but she is doggedly stubborn when it comes to what she believes to be right. She’s also good at pressing on despite her fears. Distinguishing feature: she is a world-class musician: it’s the core of who she is. In some ways her ego is bruised, but her music she trusts

Bradley: Their introspection. It acts as a double-edged sword. Because they question the world, they cannot just exist in it. 

Sandy: Even though my MC is a car thief and a hacker, he’s compassionate, he has some morals. He could run away from what’s happening, but he wants justice for a little boy who died in an explosion and to make sure his estranged family is not attacked.

Cheryl H.: She thinks her weakness is her recurring anxiety attacks. They’re not really though.

J.D. My MC has a desire to escape – from her home, from her world, from everything. This ultimately becomes a weakness as she cannot see what is good in front of her and always searches for something else.

Leah: Her empathy, her ability to know/understand people better than they know themselves, to help them see how much they have to offer, though not always able to see that in herself, she has a somewhat crippling self- doubt, and a tendency to be blind to betrayal.

Kathleen: Blue will do anything for her son, and that informs everything she does. But she’s also got a wry sense of humor, and she’s a very snappy observer of the crazy NYC silent movie scene.

Hole in the Soul from Screenplay: The Foundations of screenwriting Syd Field

Seven questions to ask about your character.

1. What is the hole in your character’s soul?

2. What does your character want or desire?

3.Why? – the reasons your character knows.

4. Why? – the subconscious reasons

5. What is your character willing to do to get what they want?

6. How does this change over the course of the story?

7. What could your character lose if they fail to achieve their goal?