Posts Tagged ‘Building Believable Characters’

Building Believable Characters, Part 3

Craft a Convincing Villain

By: Donna Schlachter

So far we’ve talked about the importance of building believable characters and why that’s so critical to the foundation for any story. Last month, strong secondary characters were discussed, and we learned that not only do these secondary characters support—or oppose—our main characters, they also assist them—or deter them—along their journey of emotional, physical, and spiritual growth.

This month, we’ll talk a little about villains. The bad guys. Sometimes called the antagonist. These are the characters who have the most to lose if the main character accomplishes his/her goal. Or, said another way, they have the most to win if the main character fails.

We’ve all watched movies and read books where we hate the villain, where we cheer for his/her demise and leave feeling very satisfied and smug when they do lose. If they do, that is. Somehow justice seems to have been served, and when that’s the basis of the story, it’s the ending we want.

Then there are those stories and movies where we want to cheer for the character that we know is bad, has bad intentions, and makes bad choices because maybe—just maybe—there’s a little bit of a redeeming hope within them. We don’t really want them to change, but simply knowing perhaps they could is enough.

To craft believable villains, we must keep these things in mind:

  • Nobody is all bad. Not even the worst villain you can think of. Just as nobody is all good, even bad guys have a mother they love, a dog they’d never kick, and a flicker of empathy occasionally.
  • Bad guys don’t see that what they do is bad. It’s simply the way they view the world. Most are narcissists who believe they deserve to have whatever they want because they want it. Some are sociopaths, with little to no empathy for others, so they don’t understand that their actions are harming other people. In fact, most villains believe that their choices will make their world a better place.
  • All villains have a story, a backstory, if you will, that explains their current actions. Figure that out, and you can find all sorts of ways to endear your villain to your reader. For example, if you decide your villain was sexually abused as a child, you can see why he progresses from pulling wings off flies to killing kittens to physical and sexual abuse of other characters. Perhaps your villain was abandoned as a child. Had a domineering woman. Read resource books about mental illness and personality disorders and come up with a unique combination of backstory and how your villain tries to diminish his pain.

As you develop your villain, you must make sure that his/her strengths equal but don’t exceed your main character’s. In this way, overcoming the villain is a difficult struggle for your main character, but it can be accomplished when your main character grows in their story arc, but not before that point.

Just as with your main character, reveal your villain’s backstory a little at a time. Your goal isn’t for your reader to like your villain—but to understand why they are they way they are.

Donna Schlachter

A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both. Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!


Building Believable Characters

By: Donna Schlachter

As writers, we understand the importance of plot—the action of the story. Without it, nothing happens. With a bad plot, we’ll bore our readers, or confuse them, and they’ll do the unthinkable—toss our book aside and never buy another.

Along with plots go subplots, those extras to the main story that keep things rolling along when the main story is off the page. Important to have the exact right number—not one too many or too few. Keeps our characters busy with the other things going on in their lives, because face it—we all do more than one thing.

We might also spend a lot of time deciding on setting—real or fictional—as well as themes, foreshadowing, and more. Every genre has its expectations. For example, in a romance, the reader expects a reason why the love interests can’t or won’t get together. In a mystery, red herrings and suspects and motives are of interest. In fantasy, world-building is critical.

Develop Believable Characters

Sometimes we can be so focused on these other parts of the story structure that we neglect to develop believable characters, so when we start writing, we simply get going on the story.

But often what happens then is that our characters start to talk and act like stereotypes, which is not what we want. Sure, we don’t want them so weird that they’re unbelievable. Or so evil the reader can’t relate to them. Or so wishy-washy our audience hates them.

No, what we want are characters who are different, yet the same.

I know, that sounds contradictory. So let me give you an example.

In my first mystery series, penned under my alter ego of Leeann Betts, my main character was a forensic accountant. YAWN! Accountants. In fact, the first editor I approached with my series flat out told me “nobody wants to read about accountants. They’re boring.” Probably not her fault that I didn’t explain my story better.

My accountant is a woman. In her fifties. Always ten to fifteen pounds overweight, no matter how much she tries. Favorite outfit are sweatpants and a t-shirt. Dressing up involves jeans. Married for the second time. Step-kids she loves. Living in a small town for the first time in her life. For over ten years. Still feels like an outsider. Loves mysteries, and hates to leave one unsolved. In fact, the first one she ever got involved in, she was almost killed. Hence my prequel story, Roasted Bean Counter. As you can tell from the title, she tries not to take herself too seriously. She hates exercise and subscribes to the theory that each person is given a certain number of heartbeats to use before they die. Once they’re gone, you’re gone. So she’s not going to shorten her life by increasing her heart rate simply so she can sweat. She also jumps to conclusions, or so her husband says. Not to mention that she hates change. Her motto is: I can be as spontaneous as anybody if I’m given enough time. Oh, and she tries not to take anybody else too seriously, either. Her sassy mouth and quick comebacks have often gotten her into trouble.

Did you notice something about my description? Not once did I mention the color of her hair, her height, her eyes, if she has a dimple or a mole on her cheek. Nothing about her apart from her age and her slight weight problem. Yet I bet you saw her in your mind as I was describing her.

Avoid the Traps

One trap writers often fall into is describing their character as though they’re reading off their driver’s license. Sure, we might disguise it a little: Her blue eyes contrasted nicely with her dark, shoulder-length, wavy hair, and at five ten and a hundred and twenty pounds, she was svelte but not scrawny.

If her physical description isn’t important to the story, we don’t need to know. So, for example, if her blue eyes made her the only kid in her family that didn’t have brown eyes, and her parents are both brown-eyed, this might make her wonder if she was adopted. Or illegitimate.

Dichotomies in physical build from her siblings or others in her family might also cause her to question her lineage. Being tall and slender might allow her to hide in a narrow space, which could be helpful if she was being chased by the bad guy. But bring that out early in the story—don’t just spring it on the reader when she needs to hide.

What does your character know?

In my mystery series, my character’s understanding of accounting, banking, and the court system are often used to help her solve the crime. In addition, because she needs to hold an expert status in forensic accounting, she must always act with honesty and integrity. Poor credit rating and issues such as overdrawing her bank account will figure negatively in that regard. I use both the question of integrity and of fiscal responsibility in two of the books to create tension between her and the crime.

I mentioned she loves her step-kids, so you can expect her to respond like a Mama bear when her kids are threatened in any way. Several books in the series center around family and the need to clear them of suspicion in various crimes.

Once you create a character sketch for your story, you must strive to ensure that every decision either goes along with who that character is, or you’d better have a good reason for it not to be. Unbelievable characters are those who act contrary to the information you’ve already told the reader. While you can put your character in a position to be forced to choose between two bad outcomes, there must be something the reader already knows about the character so the choice isn’t unbelievable.

Next month, we’ll talk about creating a strong secondary character to complement and challenge your main character.

Donna Schlachter

A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published 50+ times in books under her name and that of her alter ego, Leeann Betts; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.

She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats, finding mysteries wherever she travels. You can find her books on Amazon under both her name and that of her former pen name, Leeann Betts. Follow Donna on her website, blog, Goodreads, Bookbub, Twitter, and Facebook.

Producing a Novel – Part 3

Building Believable Characters

By: Donna Schlachter

Welcome back to our mini-course on Producing a Novel. This month, we’ll look at how to build and develop believable characters. Did you miss the first two parts? Hop over and read the first two sessions as well: Part 1 and Part 2.

Who needs character? We all do and so do the characters in our stories.

Who Needs Characters?

Well, of course we all do. It’s who the story is about. Even a story like The Old Man and the Sea had characters—the old man, the ocean, the fish, the bird, the boat. He thought about his wife and family. Without the ocean, fish, bird, and boat, there was no story.

Describing Characters

This might be easiest to explain by saying how not to do it:

  • Don’t read off their driver’s license
  • Don’t have them look in a mirror or a plate glass window more than once (in total) in a book.
  • Don’t give so much detail that the reader can’t imagine the person for themselves.
  • Don’t have the character think about her own hair color, eye color, or body description.


  • Describe their physical appearance metaphorically. For example, “her translucent skin made her look like a ghost.”
  • Use clothing or other items. For example, “The rumpled raincoat shrouded him like a burial cloth.”
  • Use other people’s point of view. For example, “Tom eyed Bob up and down. Boy, he’s packed on the weight since college.

Character Backstory

Our character’s story explains who they are, why they believe what they believe, and why they do the things they do. It also explains why they wouldn’t make another choice in a similar situation.

Now we know all this information about our character, and the reader is going to want to know it, too, right? Right. They just don’t need to know it all at once. Have the character make a bad choice and relate it to something from their past, but don’t say exactly what. Just yet.

Backstory, like compliments and salt, is best used sparingly. We never want to have a character’s history splashed on the page. Instead, sprinkle it in judiciously. Allude to why they think the way they think in response to a comment or action of another character. Many well-published authors say no backstory in the first 50 pages.

Female Dialogue

In general, women talk about the same topics that men discuss, but will have a different perspective. That doesn’t mean they have more or less expertise, just that female brains process the information differently than male brains do.

When women communicate, they tend to share emotions, feelings, dreams, concerns, and they look for ways to extend compliments. Women like to help others, including making them feel comfortable. Women tend to nurture, to solve problems by offering advice, to sympathize by putting themselves into the situation of the person they’re talking with. Women use body language and facial expressions, so be sure to include that information as action beats. Without that detail, the reader could misconstrue the words.

Walk and Talk Like a Woman

Women process dialogue differently than men. To that end, I’ve summarized a list I found on a Writer’s Digest blog post about dialogue.

  • Women tend to sympathize and share experiences rather than give advice. Add empathy to your character’s reactions and have her talk about similar things that happened to her, rather than tell someone what they should do.
  • Women tend to talk about their accomplishments and themselves in a self-deprecating fashion rather than a boastful one. Rephrase her comments in order to make her laugh at herself.
  • Women tend to be indirect and manipulative; even an assertive woman usually considers the effect her statement is likely to have before she makes it. Add questions to her dialogue, or add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions.
  • Women notice styles; they know what colors go together (and which don’t); and they know the right words to describe fashions, colors, and designs. Ramp up the level of specific detail.
  • Women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they’re generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive or euphemistic manner. If you need your heroine to be angry, give her a really good reason for yelling.
  • Women notice and interpret facial expressions and body language, and they maintain eye contact. If you need your female character to not notice how others are acting, give her a good reason for being detached.

Walk and Talk Like a Man

Men use just as many words as women do, but they tend to divide and order them differently.

  • Men tend to request specific information, rather than ask rhetorical questions. Men also tend to reply to a tough question with one of their own. And if they don’t want to discuss a topic, they might use a question to change subjects.
  • Men tend to resist explaining; they generally don’t volunteer justification for what they do. If you need him to explain, give a reason why he must.
  • Men tend to share feelings only if stressed or forced; they’re more likely to show anger than any other emotion. If you need your hero to spill how he’s feeling, make it more painful for him to not talk than to share his emotions.
  • Men tend not to pay close attention to details unless it’s something they’re interested in. Men don’t usually notice expressions or body language; they stick to basics when describing colors and styles. Scale back the level of detail.
  • Men tend to avoid euphemisms, understatements, comparisons, and metaphors. Rephrase your hero’s dialogue in concrete terms.
  • Men tend to be direct rather than ask for validation or approval. Check for “pecking order displays” between men of same status, and between men of different statuses.

Pecking Order Displays in Men

When two men meet, they assess each other’s status which then dictates how they treat each other. For example, a doctor and a mechanic meet, and this pecking order kicks in while they’re talking, to the point where the doctor can make a joke about the mechanic’s work, perhaps saying something about choosing medicine over car repair because doctors get to wear gloves to keep their hands clean. Both men would laugh, neither feels slighted, but the mechanic wouldn’t respond with any comment that could be considered derogatory or mocking of medicine.

If two mechanics met and talked, they’d joke about grease monkeys and the like, and think nothing of it because they’d consider each other equals.

If a doctor and a mechanic met to talk about car repairs, the mechanic is now the professional with a higher status and knowledge base, so he would be “in charge” of the conversation.

Note: if a woman stepped in and made similar comments as the doctor made to the mechanic, the mechanic wouldn’t appreciate it. Not because she is a woman, but rather because she is outside the circle of influence these two have created. As a result, we must be careful our female characters don’t step into the established relationships between male characters and expect to be treated like “one of the boys”.

Resources for Part 3:

Writing Gender Specific Dialog
How to Write Believable Characters
Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters
Creating Believable Characters
Creating Believable Characters: 8 Tactics
Writing Authentic Male Characters
How to Write from a Guy’s POV
Creating Interesting Characters: Characterization by Trait
A List of Character Traits
Character Development – Creating Memorable Characters

Did you miss any installments of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8
Racing to the Finish – Part 9
Writing a Series – Part 10
Self-Editing – Part 11
Cover Design and Self-Publishing – Part 12

Donna Schlachter

Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
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