Five Steps to a Believable Character
By Teresa Darnold
You've got your story worked out. You've figured out how many characters you need to tell your story. You might even have their genders and ages worked out, and you might have gone so far as to name them…but what now? How do you take a name and turn it into a real life, living breathing person? Well, that's what we're going to look into in this article.
Everyone has a history.
Those life events we experience, little and big, good and bad, influence us and help shape us into the person we are right now. This is also true for your characters. Each one of your characters has had events occur in their lives that made them to be the person who you create and share with your audience.
So, your first step to take is to create a character Dossier of each one of your characters. What do I mean by a Dossier? Simple: the idea is for you to create a collection of documents that contain detailed information, specific to each one of your characters.
What sort of life events do we include in a characters dossier? Just the facts. What is their full and complete name? Do they have a nick name? How old are they? What kind, and how much education do they have? Where were they educated? Are they single, married, widowed, have a significant partner? Do they have children? Do they own a house? What kind of a car do they drive? Do they have traffic tickets? Have they ever been arrested?
And as Agent Smith told Neo in the Movie the Matrix:
Agent Smith: It seems that you've been living two lives. One life, you're Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you... help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias "Neo" and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.
The next question should be, "What don't we include in the Dossier?" Anything that is not observable by another person, or for which there isn't a paper or electronic trail for, don't include.
Everyone has a secret. Sometimes people have several or even many secrets, but everyone has at least one secret that they never share with anyone; not their Mom, not their Priest, or their best friend, their life partner or even their dog. This is a secret they take to the grave with them.
So, what's the importance of having a secret? A personal secret can sometimes influence us in the decisions, choices and direction we make in our everyday lives.
For example, Joss Whedon created a secret for one of his characters in his TV series 'Firefly'. His character Inara's secret was that she was dying. It was this secret that influenced the character Inara's decisions she made throughout the series, and in fact, her secret was the main reason for the character Inara's decision to leave the ship in the final episode.
Now, to the audience, this decision seemed inexplicable, for it occurred just when her relationship with the ship's captain 'Mel' was becoming less antagonistic and had edged into affection. 'Why would she leave, just when she was finally finding love?' I've heard people ask. The answer to that question is the same as it is for anyone who is suffering from a terminal disease and doesn't want those who love them to suffer from their loss, so they leave that person's life, to save them from a greater pain at their dying, than from their leaving.
Everyone knows what habits are right? Habits are things that we do unconsciously; a pattern that we're not aware that we're doing.
Here's a real life example: Now, this story happened in an era when recording live broadcast was much more complicated than it is today. Many years ago, we had a whole lineup of shows that played on Friday night that we liked to watch. And, we had a friend who lived in another state and time-
For awhile we were polite -
Today, VHS machines are gone and we can pause a show or record it at the mere push of a remote control button. All those shows we used to eagerly watch are now long gone from the airwaves. But, our friend still calls us every Thursday night all these many years later. It's a habit -
In fiction, George Raft became famous as the coin-
It did cause a problem for Raft on the set during his death scene. Hawks had Raft flip the coin while being shot. Raft fell back and hit his head on the door while falling. "When I slid down the door, I was slightly unconscious and landed in a small pool of my own blood. My eyes sort of rolled up in my head, like people's do when they are dying. The coin I had been tossing fell out of my hand. I heard Hawks say, "Print."
Everyone there said this was the greatest movie death scene they ever saw. Hawks filmed the coin rolling along the floor until it lost its motion and fell flat. Hawks told me, 'The roll of the coin and then its falling still told the story of Guino's death'."
Unfortunately none of it stayed in the final film. Hawks got the idea from a real-
For the character "Guino Rinaldo", the coin flipping was a habit. How did the character "Guino Rinaldo" come to have this habit? The story doesn't say why and doesn't need to say why, unless the 'why' is necessary for character development.
Everyone has goals, whether it's to own the latest Tesla car, to have a nice house in the 'burb's, to get on the Dean's List in college, or to find a nice retirement home for Ma. Whatever it is, everyone has something they'd like to work toward acquiring or achieving.
It's the same with characters. For example, often in stories, a person has to do one more of something, before they can achieve their goal. Maybe they want to retire, to get a pay raise and/or promotion. Perhaps they have to empty their bank account because a family member has been kidnapped and the kidnappers demand a ransom. Or, they are a depressed soul and are seeking some way to end their internal pain.