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Credible Characterisation

Posted by Carole/WordsRU on 8 December 2015


Some novels are easily forgotten, almost before the cover is closed. Others stay in our memories for days, months and years to come. Naturally, these memorable novels are often shared and discussed. Due to the explosive element of social media, those discussions can turn a struggling novelist into an overnight success.

What's the secret? One of the key factors to a memorable novel is credible characterisation.

Character vs Plot

It is the age-old question: Is plot the most important element in fiction writing? Or is the character the most important element? Frankly, this should not even be a debatable question. Of course, it is essential to have an interesting plot. If nothing happens in a story, why should the reader bother turning the page? Plot is crucial. However. . .

Imagine if Ron Weasley were the main character at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, instead of Harry Potter. I think it's fair to state that Ron is a bit of a follower, not given to spontaneity or defiance. If he were the main character, the novel would have been quite boring, simply because Ron wouldn't have taken risks. In fact, he probably would have remained at his aunt and uncle's house and never gone anywhere with Hagrid. Story over.

Hermoine would also have failed to bring this series very far. Although she certainly possesses a spark of defiance and great wit, she is much too intelligent to be led astray for long. She probably would have solved Harry's problems in half the time and avoided many of the intriguing subplots, because they were simply beneath her!

My point is this: Even the best plot will wither and die without the right character to drive the action. You simply cannot force the wrong character to do somethingat least, not if your writing is to be believable. Character and plot have to fit together, like a team. The best novels have this magical mix: an interesting plot and a character whose very nature will lead us through the events seamlessly.

Know Your Character

A strongly developed character will lead your story into realms that you, the writer, never imagined. You cannot and should not control every aspect of your story; if you do, then you aren't breathing life into your character. As you're writing, your character should be providing his or her own reactions, comments, memories, wishes and so forth. There should be elements that aren't scripted; they just happen. Don't think of yourself as a puppet-master; instead, be a sculptor.

When we think of the people we know best, we are able to describe them inside and out: their facial expressions, common habits, tone of voice, catch-phrases and so on. We know when they're being sincere. We know when they're about to cry or shout or burst into laughter. We know them. The same should be true for your characters. Your job is to make these attributes come alive on the pages, so your readers know the character as well as they know their best friend. By developing this intimacy, you pull the readers into the story. They become invested; they want to know what's going to happen to the character. And so, they turn the page.

Think about the last time you spoke to someone about a particular issue. Maybe you were talking to a co-worker about a pressing issue. You might have held a family meeting. Or you could have been confirming plans for the holidays. Chances are, other things were said or questions were asked, unexpected incidentals:

  • "Did you hear about what happened to Mary Smith last week?"
  • "I want a raise in my allowance."
  • "You are bringing something to Aunt Susie's for dinner, aren't you?"

Whatever was stated or asked was easily answered, because you are familiar with your world and the players in it. The same should be true for your characters. They should be convincing, with vast reserves of information, experiences, preferences and skills that have not been especially slated for Chapter 4, Scene Three. In life, things just happen. In books, things should just happen, too (and become essential to the plot). And your character should be prepared for them.

For this reason, for the purpose of credibility, you should make sure to know everything about your character. Know where your character has come from and where he or she is going. Know his or her likes and dislikes, and opinions about music, travel, food, politics and so forth. Develop a relationship with this person, much like you'd develop a relationship with anyone you'd just met.

Character Development

We are all products of our individual experiences. When we are young and we get hurt, we learn to be more careful. As teenagers, rocky relationships help us to realise the value of trust. As adults, trial and error may lead us to determine what we want out of lifeuntil we want something else. Along the way, myriad events and people shape our outlook on the world. We don't view the world quite the same way as we did ten years ago, or even one year ago. We've learned from our experiences and changed accordingly. The same should be true of your characters.

NOTE: If a character's outlook is the same at the beginning of your novel as it is at the end, then he or she hasn't evolved or learned from the events on those pages. There's no character development. There's no purpose.

A quality novel should have some form of realisation, whereby the character learns a new truth or sees the world in a different light. The events that take place should affect your character, just like our experiences every day affect us. They should have meaning. This may entail your character making decisions at the end of the novel that he or she might not have made in the beginning. Maybe your character has gained confidence during the novel. Or integrity. Or fear. Whether the development is positive or negative, your novel cannot be convincing if you do not allow your character to develop as a result of his or her experiences.

Putting It All Together

It is very easy to know the ingredients for credible characterisation. It is not quite so easy, however, to follow that train of credibility for 100,000 words, especially when you are also focusing on the plot, subplot, setting, dialogue, details, spelling, grammar and so forth. And the more times you read your novel, the more accustomed you will become to the content. The more accustomed you become, the less likely you will be to notice areas that are inconsistent.

For instance, sometimes characters suddenly start using dialogue that is inconsistent with their previous, established word choice; this happens when the writer starts to take over the story, instead of letting the character lead the way. Other times, characters say or do something that contradicts previous information; this is a matter of poor fact-checking, often due to changes in revision. Sometimes, a character fails to provide a suitable reaction, which leaves the readers disappointed and confused; this happens when the writer focuses too much on plot and fails to give the character his or her lead. There are even times in which a character says or does something that makes no sense; this occurs because the necessary background information is in the writer's mind, but has never been clarified on paper.

To avoid such inconsistencies, it is often helpful to seek the services of an editor, who can view your work objectively. At WordsRU, we provide proofreading and in-depth editing services; we also offer development letters, which provide an overall assessment of the manuscript's plot and character development.

As you can see, writing a quality novel with credible characterisation involves much more than placing a generic character into a ready-made plot and saying, "Ready, set, go!" People remember novels that they can relate to. The character provides the connection, the familiarity, that keeps a reader turning the pages.


Tags:Andy McDermott / Director

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