How to Make Your Characters Believable by Thomas Waite, author of “Terminal Value”

About Thomas Waite

Thomas Waite is an author, entrepreneur and consultant whose writings have appeared in such publications as the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times and he has been featured in a wide variety of media, including CNN Money and a number of cable news programs. As an entrepreneur, he founded and co-founded two companies, including one that was sold to an Internet firm. He has consulted to dozens of technology corporations and other companies, and serves on the Board of Directors of others. He was born in the seaside town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where his father was John Updike’s dentist. He attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Oxford University. He now lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

How to Make Your Characters Believable

Perhaps the single most important factor in creating believable characters is to make them consistent. You want your readers to believe in your story – no matter how outlandish it might be – and to do so it can’t contradict itself. Neither can your characters. You could create a character that is at first unimaginable, but if that character behaves in a manner that is consistent with the traits you have given them and the background you have provided, then the reader will find them believable. If the character seems to deviate from this and changes arbitrarily, your reader will quickly begin to view that character as no longer believable.

Of course, this doesn’t rule out a character being able to surprise the reader. For example, let’s say you have a character in your story that is old and weak. What if you want to surprise your reader by having this character do something physically spectacular at the end of the story? In this case, you have to make sure that there is something consistent throughout the story leading up to this event. So, for example, this character might do some smaller feats (for example, despite their infirmity, they are able to adeptly catch something that is falling). While this may seem a bit odd to the reader, they will likely suspend their disbelief until the end of your novel. But before your novel is over, you need to explain how this ties together. For example, it could be revealed at the very end that this character was once a world-class juggler in the circus – something the character was embarrassed to admit earlier in the story.

Beyond that there are other elements of characters that are important. Where are your characters from and how is that reflected in their traits such as what they know, the words they use, and their perspectives on life? Setting is important as well. Where do your characters live? Not just what city or town, but where do they reside and with whom? How did they end up living there? How do they feel about it? How does all of this affect their behavior?

There are many other elements that come in to play as well. For example, age, appearance, and childhood. A character of a certain age is going to do some things, and probably not others. If an old man is playing Words With Friends on his iPhone, you probably have a believability issue. If a short, unattractive and insecure woman is described admiring herself by catching a glimpse of her reflection over a very high bar, you have a problem. On the other hand, if a man had a bad childhood marked by constant fighting between his parents and an ugly divorce and he has trouble committing to his girlfriend, then that is believable.

Other examples might include jobs, personalities, and even names. A man who works on the assembly line in an automobile plant is going to look at the world and talk very differently than a lawyer. How they feel about virtually everything will be dependent in part on their career choices. Similarly a character’s personality has to be in line with everything else we know about them. Since most novels involve conflicts and confrontations, a character has to react consistently and accordingly. So if one of your characters is insulted, do you have them just take it, fight back, or leave and talk about it with someone else? Even names can be important. A character named Henry Lodge Wadsworth III instantly brings an image to your reader’s mind. Bubba Jones suggests a very different kind of person.

The bottom-line? Creating characters that are believable means knowing them as well as if they were a real person, and ensuring that their actions result from the intersection of all of the elements I’ve described (and more). If you describe them well and they act in a consistent fashion, then they are going to be believable. If they do anything inconsistent, then you’d better have hinted at this along the way so when you do spring it upon your reader, it makes sense.

About Terminal Value

Terminal ValueWhen Dylan Johnson sold his mobile computing business to Mantric Technology Solutions – a red-hot technology firm about to go public – he thought he and his partnerswould realize their wildest dreams. But before the deal is even completed, Dylan senses that something isn’t quite right. He should have trusted his instincts. He quickly finds himself marginalized and his partner and best friend Tony suspects that they are all caught in sinister web of deceit. The very night of Mantric’s wildly successful public offering, Dylan discovers his best friend dead – and is convinced he was murdered. Dylan forms a close alliance – and romantic relationship – with his former partner Heather and the two follow an electronic trail into Mantric’s secrets … only to discover that the death of their friend is the result of a betrayal they never could have imagined.

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