How to Make Your Characters Believable

What makes you believable? No, it’s not a philosophical question a la “I think, therefore I am.” Think about it, what makes you a unique individual? Your characters are just the same, only they don’t have the benefit of a lengthy everyday existence like a real person does.
When I was writing “Sleeper’s Run,” my editor advised me to check out other thriller writers. I selected a number of classic works by well-known authors and began to study them. One of the first things that caught my attention was that most of the protagonists were defined by their current or former professions, the former soldier, the cop, the P.I. and so on. That was usually the sole significant attribute of each character. I was already doing something completely different; I was shaping my characters’ lives from the moment of birth, even though the reader will never get to see all the details. I created timelines with bullet points of significant events throughout their lives: When and where they went to school, how well they did, who their parents are, do they have family, where have they lived and for how long, when they started undertaking a certain kind of training. I think you get the idea. These timelines give me a thorough understanding of my characters’ existence, until I can virtually answer any question about my characters. It also gives me a chronological perspective that grounds the story within a timeline I can easily navigate when needed.
Take my protagonist, for example: Eric Caine is a former pararescue jumper in the United States Air Force, but he enlisted in his mid-twenties. So what was he doing until then? Did he go to college? What was his major? What was he doing for a living? What hobbies does he have, if any? What was his relation with his parents? What kind of person was he before becoming an airman? What movies does he like? How about music? All of those elements, and many more, inform the character’s present. All too often, the protagonist in a thriller is someone we might fantasize being like, but fail to identify with; I wanted to change that.
Creating a character is more than giving your protagonist a resume, a set of skills or a few quirks, like the hardboiled detective who was a former Marine and drops a penny every time he sneezes. That could be a starting point, but you need to go deeper. Maybe he has a thing for cats, maybe he hates pop music, or perhaps he has a gay brother. Layer by layer you begin to sculpt a three-dimensional character. Think of your characters as stories within your story. The richer they are, the better your novel will be.
Henry Mosquera is a writer and artist born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. He attended the University of Miami, Florida, where he obtained a double major in Graphic Design and Film. He enjoys researching his novels, including gaining first-hand knowledge of some of his characters' skills. Henry currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife, dog and cat. Sleeper's Run is his first novel.
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