ACFW Rewind

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(Editor’s Note: Today, ACFW re-runs a worthwhile post from the past, in this case December 2011, in what we call the ACFW rewind, highlighting previous posts that deserve a second look. )

What Makes Your Fictional Character Believable?

by Ane Mulligan

What makes a fictional character believable? It’s how real they are. Does the writing pull you, the reader, into the story enough for you to experience it? Do you feel like you’re part of it? That this character is your friend?

That comes a lot from deep POV. And to get deep, you have to know the character as well as yourself. What is your hero/heroine’s story motivation? That’s not as simple a question as it sounds. You have to keep asking why, until you get to the heart of it.

For instance: let’s say your heroine wants to teach third grade at an elementary school. What’s her motivation? Your first answer might be that she wants to help kids. Is that a great story motivation? Or are you yawning?

We need to go deeper. Why does she want to help kids? Uhm, maybe a teacher helped her learn something hard that changed her life. So? That doesn’t excite me. Does it you?

Again we ask why. Why is teaching kids so important that if she doesn’t reach her goal, she’s devastated? Could it be she wants unconditional love? The kind of love a child develops for their teacher?

Now we have a universal desire. Something the reader can empathize with. And we have a story, because she’s looking in all the wrong places for unconditional love.

So now we have a motivation that will carry a story forward and give us lots of conflict.

There’s something else that makes the character multi-dimensional. It’s their secret. What is your character’s secret? The one thing they don’t want anyone else to know? Usually it stems from the lie they believe about themselves.

Once you know the character inside and out, you’re ready to write. You let the motivation help plot the story, but something doesn’t feel right. It’s not there yet.

What’s missing?

The following is a well-written paragraph.

MaryRose dipped one toe into the water sending a ring of ripples outward. The early morning sunrays shone like spotlights through the trees across the inlet. Morning birds sang their happy songs and two glimmering dragonflies chased each other along the water’s edge. Towards the mouth of the cove a fish jumped.

But it could be better. Do you see what’s missing? It’s beautiful description. But that’s all it is. Where is MaryRose in this? Observing. But people don’t simply observe. We have opinions, memories that are triggered by sights, sounds, and smells.

Many years ago Ron Benrey taught me his Magic Paragraph. He’s included it in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction, which I highly recommend.

What it taught me was to add the character’s reaction to everything (or nearly everything). Rewriting the above paragraph using the magic paragraph might look like this:

MaryRose dipped one toe into the water. Its iciness sent a shiver through her. She pulled her sweater tighter across her chest, hugging herself. The early morning sun shone through the trees, spotlighting white-throated sparrows as they sang their happy songs. In the mouth of the cove, a fish jumped sending out a ring of ripples. Like the little lie she told sent out ripples of consequence.

Okay, so I added the last sentence, but it felt right. It also tied what she saw to her problem. The thing is, now we see MaryRose’s response to her surroundings, and from those, we begin to know her.

You may have noticed I also removed one sentence. That’s because once you’ve added the sensory details, you don’t need as many descriptions. The “rule of three” is a good guideline to avoid laundry lists.

Another great example came from another member of the group. He told how after a particular critique from Pam Meyers, something clicked for him. Now when Adrienne hears tires on gravel and looks out the window, she just doesn’t see the Johnsons coming back for another load. She takes note of Jasper, their son. She describes him, even renders her opinion. He had his father’s build, looking like another welterweight boxer, but Jasper had his mother’s looks. Fortunate for him.

These are the things that make certain characters come alive to the reader and makes them feel like the character is their friend.

Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. Editor and V.P. of Novel Rocket, she’s a published playwright, humor columnist, 3-time Genesis finalist, a mom and grandmother. She resides in Suwanee, GA, with her husband and one very large dog and a brand new puppy.

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