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Top 10 Questions for Creating Believable Characters

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Creating the more complex round characters takes time -- time spent thinking about how your characters look, where they're from, and what motivates them, for instance. The questions below provide structure to this all-important thought process.

While the reader will not need to know all the details, it's important that you do. The better you know your characters, the more realistic your story or novel will end up being.

1. Where does your character live?

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Michael Adams ("Anniversaries in the Blood"), the novelist and writing professor, believes that setting is the most important element of any story. It's definitely true that character, if not story, in many ways grows out of a sense of place. What country does your character live in? What region? Does he live alone or with a family? In a trailer park or an estate? How did he end up living there? How does he feel about it?

2. Where is your character from?

In a similar vein, where did your character's life begin? Did she grow up running around the woods in a small Southern town, or learning to conjugate Latin verbs in a London boarding school? Obviously this influences things like the kinds of people your character knows, the words she uses to communicate with them, and the way she feels about a host of things in her external world.

3. How old is your character?

Though this might seem like an obvious question, it's important to make a clear decision about this before you begin writing -- otherwise, it's impossible to get the details right. For instance, would your character have a cell phone, a land line, or both? Does your character drink martinis or cheap beer? Still get money from his parents, or worry about what will happen to his parents as they get old?

4. What is your character called?

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? According to novelist Elinor Lipman, absolutely not: "Names have subtext and identity. If your main characters are Kaplans, you've got yourself a Jewish novel, and if your hero is Smedley Winthrop III, you've given him a trust fund. Nomenclature done right contributes to characterization." Your character's name provides a lot of information -- not only about ethnicity -- but about your character's age, background, and social class.

5. What does your character look like?

Is your character tall enough to see over the heads of a crowd at a bar or to notice the dust on the top of his girlfriend's refrigerator? Does she deal with weight issues and avoid looking at herself in the mirror? Though you need not have a crystal clear picture of your character in mind, physical details help your readers believe in the character, and help you imagine how your character moves through the world.

6. What kind of childhood did he or she have?

As with real people, many things about your character's personality will be determined by his background. Did his parents have a good marriage? Was she raised by a single mom? How your character interacts with other people -- whether he's defensive or confident, stable or rootless -- may be influenced by his past.

7. What does your character do for a living?

As with all of these questions, how much information you need depends in some part on the plot, but you'll need some idea of how your character makes money. A dancer will look at the world very differently from an accountant, for instance, and a construction worker will use very different language from either one. How they feel about a host of issues, from money to family, will be in some part dependent on their choice of careers.

8. How does your character deal with conflict and change?

Most stories involve some element of conflict and change -- they're part of what makes a story a story. Is your character passive or active? If someone confronts her, does she change the subject, head for the minibar, stalk off, or do a deep-breathing exercise? When someone insults him, is he more likely to take it, come up with a retort, or excuse himself to find someone else to talk to?

9. Who else is in your character's life?

Relationships -- how people interact with others -- reveal character. They're also excuses for dialogue, which break up exposition, offering another way of providing necessary information. Think about who will best help you convey this information, and what kinds of people would realistically be in your character's world in the first place.

10. What is your character's goal or motivation in this story or scene?

In longer stories or novels, you will have to ask this question repeatedly. Many of your character's actions will result from the intersection of what she's trying to achieve and her personality, which is composed of everything you've invented in answering the above questions. When in doubt about how your character should behave, ask yourself what your character wants from the situation, and think about the answers you've given to all of the above.
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