The Emporium Gazette
Issue 59 -- February 2004

You, The Character, The Actor:
Building A Believable Character

by Bob Nailor

Exactly what is a "believable character" and why is it so important?

Addressing the last part first is easy. If your character is as flimsy as cardboard, your reader will quickly lose interest. That doesn't mean the person has to be strong or the lead. Every character in your story needs to be able to stand on his or her own merits. A "walk-on" character is exactly that; a person who comes into your scene, does something and then disappears from the story. Now the rest of your story's cast must have character to be one.

What is a believable character? He is one that has struck a chord inside your reader. They have identified or embraced that character and care about what happens. Exactly what does this mean? I finished reading Melanie Rawn's "Dragon Prince" series. Her characters came alive and danced inside my mind. I kept turning the pages to find out what happened next. Were the characters real? Yes and no. They weren't real in the sense that they actually existed, but yes, they were real within my mind. I cared. I was so involved with their lives and situations that when one character died, I actually had tears welling in my eyes. I was emotionally involved and I had lost a friend. I wiped my eyes and realized just how silly that was. It was then that I realized what had happened. Melanie Rawn had grabbed my soul with her characters and that was what I had to do if I wanted to be a writer.

I'm sure you have read all the character development plans: eye and hair color, height, weight, skin tone and texture, sex, species, scars, likes and dislikes, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

You need more than physical features for a character. You need reality. Each person has weaknesses and strengths. Lock those down in your character but remember they can and should change as your story progresses.

Another secret is that characters must also remain realistic throughout the story. Read the following three small passages and see if you can figure out the problem.

Jeff placed in foot in the stirrup and lifted himself onto the horse's back.
"Are you leaving already?" Becky whined.
Three quick steps and he embraced her once again.
"Should I really leave?" Jeff whispered.

Grabbing the broadsword with both hands, he glared at the oncoming dwarf. The princess had to be defended. His left hand gently pushed the princess behind him for protection as he lunged with the sword.

Brad winked, his bright blue eyes glistening in the sunlight.

"Just put your back into it and we should be okay," Brad replied. He placed a shoulder against the large, abrasive stone, pushed and winced causing tears to flow from his dark eyes.
"It just has to work," Brad said.

They were subtle errors that I made in stories that I had written. What were they? If your character is on a horse, exactly how does he do three quick steps? How many hands does the swordsman have, assuming him to be human? If he is holding the sword with two hands, he can't use another to protect the princess. Finally, Brad has what color eyes? Bright blue? Can they be dark?

You have to become the actor. When you write a scene, step through the motions and you'll quickly realize a possible impossibility. Your believable character just fell on his face in your reader's eyes. The more real your characters are in the reader's mind, the more believable they become. Any instance that makes the reader stop and think, or causes him to reread, creates a lost reader and thus hurts your story in the telling.

Remember, actors don't change personas, personalities, traits and features in the blink of an eye unless they are putting in a contact lens. You'd better be acting out that scene.

Bob Nailor is author of "The Secret Voice," an Amish-Christian story, "Pangaea, Eden Lost," an adventure story, "Three Steps: The Journeys of Ayrold," a Celtic fantasy, and "2012: Timeline Apocalypse," an end-of-time tale. He is also included in several anthologies and collections. Check his website at

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