How to Make Your Characters Believable
It’s all about the little things. Like a pat of butter. You know the kind. The tiny gold-
wrapped pat of butter you get in any mid-range restaurant in America. It's a single
serving, or maybe a single ounce of butter. Sometimes it smooshes as you open it,
liquefied butter oozing out. Other times it's cold and hard and smooshes your bread
But when it's perfect, when the foil-lined paper pulls back easily and a third of the
pat slices cleanly away from the rest and then spreads smoothly onto the slice of
baguette, I delight in that butter. The delight is not only the sweet, salty, richness,
but also the apportionment. It's not that I'm attentive to having only one serving.
Rarely is it that. Rather, I like taking a little at a time and knowing there's more. It's
something I've done since childhood. It's not an OCD thing. I don't have to do it. But
there's some weird pleasure I derive from eating a favored food in small bits.
Now that I've revealed more than I ever should have about my inner workings, let
me point out that the smallest of details are key to believable characters. It's not that
they must teeter on the edge of pathology, though the intriguing ones sometimes
do, especially the antagonists. No, it's that the attention to human detail is crucial to
creating characters that aren't cardboard cutouts serving a plot.
It's possible to observe such detail in ourselves or in others. In private or in public.
It's possible to do this with intention, collecting tidbits of lives lived to place in
For me, it's been an accumulation. I've been observing as long as I can remember.
And evidently, remember I do. I've never kept these observations in a notebook. I
haven't catalogued them or arranged which ones go together. Yet when I'm writing,
I find that each character appears not just in actions, but in the delight of a pat of
butter, or the delicate balance of a favored long-stemmed wine glass, or even in a
preference to buy double-washed, bagged baby spinach.
As I wrote Isolation, characters appeared to me. No, that’s not it, I didn’t see them.
Rather, I imagined something done and then followed the one who done it. One of
the earliest examples was a character who had just become vegetarian. He wanted
the ingredients for a salad, most of which he found in the organic section of a co-
op. But when he went to select the spinach, it had large leaves which folded back
on themselves clutching dirt within dark green pockets. He wasn’t willing to wash,
rewash, and chop such leaves. He knew he wouldn’t be able to make that into a habit
after long days at work. So he went for the baby spinach in a bag, certain of its safety
since it was double-washed.
A detail drawn from my research was that the washing of pre-packaged vegetables
can introduce E. Coli contamination. But the details of how this man would purchase
and prepare his salad was filled with the details of human observation.
You won’t find this character in Isolation. He made it to the next-to-final draft with
his name changed and his story reduced. Then he was cut from the line-up, his
story too much like that of another, and less compelling in its slowness. He was a
believable character, maybe too much so, his life too droll for the speed needed to
keep readers reading.
So, there are believable characters and interesting ones. The characters we want in
good fiction must be both.